March 27, 2004
Those who are keeping score in the abortion war recognize the significance of the Senate's passage Thursday of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.
The lopsided 61-38 vote makes it a separate crime to harm a fetus during commission of a violent federal crime. But the bill, which President Bush has promised to sign, was never about protecting women or punishing criminals. Its purpose, from the moment of its conception, was to establish legal rights for a fetus - from the moment of its conception.
Here is the federal government's new legal definition of when personhood begins: An "unborn child" is a child in utero, which "means a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb." Although the act specifically exempts prosecution of legally performed abortions, its supporters unapologetically acknowledge that the law is a serious setback for abortion rights advo- cates.
Coupled with last year's passage of the so-called "partial-birth" abortion ban, the Unborn Victims act adds significant momentum to the anti-abortion movement. It also validates the emerging strategy of attacking abortion rights at vulnerable edges that are unlikely to offend mainstream Americans.
The strategy is working because abortion opponents have done their homework. Surveys confirm that almost two-thirds of U.S. adults support a ban on the late-term abortion procedure known as dilation and extraction, or "partial-birth" abortion. Similarly, when asked if a fetus should have rights, a Newsweek poll last June reported that 46 percent of respondents believed those rights should begin at conception, with 12 percent saying when the embryo is implanted in the womb.
In another 2003 survey, 79 percent of respondents said they believed that if an attack on a woman led to the death of her unborn child, prosecutors should be able to charge the attacker with murder for killing the fetus.
American opinions about abortion are evolving, and in most cases the shift is toward greater restriction on the circumstances under which abortion should be allowed. That suggests that those who believe abortion should remain a private medical decision between a woman and her doctor - a position we support - need to face reality.
Absolute defense of unrestricted abortion rights exposes even those abortion rights Americans will support to continued erosion and potential elimination. The battle for hearts and minds on this ferociously divisive issue needs to place more emphasis on strategies that will reduce the need for abortions, such as making the Plan B contraceptive available to women without requiring a prescription.
Reproductive choice for all women - including rape and incest victims, minors, and women for whom pregnancy poses serious physical, psychological or economic hardships - hasn't been at greater risk since the Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973. Abortion supporters need to become as smart and effective as their opponents in educating and motivating elected officials and the public. Otherwise, the choice women now enjoy as a legal right will be legislated out of existence.