God and man at bay

Posted: Nov 09, 2003 12:00 AM
The bill proscribing partial-birth abortions threw off lights, intended and not intended. There was the decision by the White House to give the signing of the new law maximum attention. Accordingly, leading lights in the pro-life legions were there to witness the act.

By obvious prearrangement, four abortionists in Lincoln, Neb., were lined up ready to petition a federal court, which granted their petition as soon as the new legislation was signed. However, the Nebraskan judge's injunction applied only to the four petitioners. It took a New York judge another day to hand down an injunction that may apply nationwide. But the point of it was clear, that the armies of the day and of the night are engaged for one more struggle.

The friends of abortion have this time around a more difficult front to move on. It used to be relatively simple: A woman has the right to abort, or doesn't have the right. We know that such a right exists. It was procreated by the Supreme Court in 1973. But the court did not authorize abortion at the near end of fetal life, and the concentration this time around has been on abortion of a fetal substance that was seconds away from becoming an infant child, but found a guillotine in its way.

The approach of pro-choice people is to declare that any limitation on the right to abort threatens the very life of that right. And to add specifically that the act just passed fails to take into account the medical needs of the mother, and for that reason alone is defective.

Defenders of the act will argue that the language of Roe v. Wade does not exclude such protections as are now offered against third-trimester carnage. And of course it is somewhere between hard and impossible to make the case that the mother's health depends on abortion at that stage. Arguments to the contrary depend on psychological readings of the mother's medical needs. "Mark him down as 1-A," the draft boards used to say when an 18-year-old boy pleaded a nervous incapacity to live a soldier's life. Congressional argument agreed that there was simply no evidence that prospective mothers could not handle the birth of the child they had already nurtured for six months or more.

But the intensity of the quarrel goes beyond mere political affiliations. At heart, it is widely taken for granted, we have here a religious problem. It is correct that a Catholic risks mortal sin, if she engages in abortion or if he is complicit in it. But these considerations are less important as religious sanctions decline or are attenuated. A new survey by Harris Interactive tells us that only 26 percent of Americans attend church once a week.

On a broader range, the poll tells us that religious affiliations can mean very little. It is Catholics who as a body are most conspicuously opposed to abortion, but, says this poll, 21 percent of Roman Catholics do not believe in God (this is true of 10 percent of Protestants and 52 percent of Jews). Jews can't stop being thought of as Jews by simply ignoring the synagogue; they are still thought "Jewish." Is this also happening to Catholics? Born Catholic, but eschew the church and its laws, renounce any belief in God -- are they still going to be classified as Catholics every time Mr. Harris decides to do a poll? That seems, somehow, not right. Not right for the aspirant ex-Catholic, not right for the Roman Catholic communion.

The abortion figures tell us pretty much the same story: 1.3 million per year. Blacks are three times as likely as whites to abort, Hispanics 2.5 times as likely to abort. Twenty-seven percent of women obtaining abortions identify themselves as Catholics. There is no questionnaire, one gathers, that asks: Are you also a believing Catholic?

Seventeen Democratic senators voted for the new bill; 63 Democratic members of the House did so. It is too soon to say that pro-lifers can't be Democrats, or that pro-choicers can't be Republicans. But 11 years ago, a pro-life governor was not permitted to speak at a Democratic convention. There are those who hope that the singular atrocity of the partial-birth process, now illegalized, will liberate the Democratic Party from the old absolutism.