Reframing the Abortion Debate: Pro-Choice Activist Calls on Her Allies to Rethink Assumptions

By McBrien, Richard P. | National Catholic Reporter, March 4, 2005 | Go to article overview

Reframing the Abortion Debate: Pro-Choice Activist Calls on Her Allies to Rethink Assumptions


McBrien, Richard P., National Catholic Reporter


In her groundbreaking article, "Is There Life after Roe? How to Think about the Fetus," in the winter 2004/5 issue of Conscience magazine, a quarterly publication of Catholics for Free Choice, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice, attempted to mark out a path to resolve the present stalemate over abortion.

Many Americans, she acknowledged, are generally both supportive of, and uncomfortable with, legal abortion. They do not want to see women return to the days of coat hangers and back alleys, but their moral sensibilities are also acutely offended by late-term and partial-birth abortions.

Addressing advocates on both sides of this bitter controversy, Ms. Kissling argued that too much of the abortion debate has focused on rights: the rights of the fetus to life, and the rights of the pregnant woman to choose to have an abortion.

Beyond the matter of rights, she insisted, there are "at least three central values that need to be part of the public conversation about abortion and, as appropriate, influence behavior, if not law."

The first and primary value is that of "the bodily autonomy of women," which means that "nobody should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term without her consent." However, the "right to choose abortion is not absolute." In and of itself, abortion is "not a moral good."

The second value is "respect for life, including fetal life." She asked her natural allies on the pro-choice side: "Why should we allow this value to be owned by those opposed to abortion? Are we not capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time: of valuing life and respecting women's rights? Have we not ceded too much territory to antiabortionists by not articulating the value of fetal life?

"The precise moment when the fetus becomes a person," she continued, "is less important than a simple acknowledgment that whatever category of human life the fetus is, it nonetheless has value, it is not nothing."

While it is very difficult to develop an ethical formula for assigning value to fetal life and asserting the obligations that flow from that value, "the need to offer some answers from a pro-choice perspective is both morally and politically urgent."

Ms. Kissling countered the pro-choice slogan, "Every child a wanted child," with the observation that "if wantedness is what gives us value and a right to life, then who among the unwanted will be the next to be declared disposable the sick, the disabled, the poor or the unemployed? …

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