It's called "selective reduction." It means killing one or more babies when a woman is pregnant with "multiples." It is a difficult decision of great moral moment.
But not in the view of free-lance lecturer Amy Richards, whose account just appeared in the New York Times Magazine. She was living with her boyfriend and decided to go off the pill. They agreed to have the child if one showed up.
Alas, three babies appeared in place of one. Now what?
Her income would take a significant hit. "There was a part of me that was sure I could work around that," she allowed. "But it was a matter of, Do I want to?"
Her answer was no. There were health risks. Moreover, "I'll have to start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise." So it was off to the specialist who would shoot potassium chloride into the hearts of two of the babies.
When looking at the sonogram, her boyfriend, Peter, thought: "Oh my gosh, there are three heartbeats. I can't believe we're about to make two disappear."
But the doctor pushed him out of the room and did the deed. "I had a boy, and everything is fine," concluded Richards. Still, she's worried about becoming pregnant again: she might have "multiples."
If so, she opines, "I would do the same thing." And it's no one else's business, even that of her boyfriend: "This is why they say it's the woman's choice."
"Choice." Making two heartbeats disappear is simply a "choice."
CHOICE IS THE MANTRA chanted by abortion supporters. The group NARAL now styles itself "NARAL Pro-Choice America."
There's a "Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice" and "Catholics for a Free Choice." Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry promises to "protect the right to choose." Those who criticize abortion are accused of being "anti-choice." NARAL goes so far as to complain about restrictions short of a ban which "are designed to deter women from choosing abortion and to make it more difficult and burdensome to obtain for those that do."
Yet abortion really is not about choice. It is about consequence. The consequences of choices freely made.
Consider Amy Richards. There's no doubting the burden that she faced carrying multiple babies. It would have been extraordinarily difficult. But it would have been the consequence of her own multiple decisions.
She chose to live with someone. She chose to have sex with him. She chose to go off the pill. All choices appropriately left to her, unregulated by government.
But having enjoyed the freedom to make those choices, she wants to avoid responsibility for the result of doing so: becoming pregnant with triplets.
The point is not to churlishly punish her for eschewing traditional Judeo-Christian morals. Rather, choices have consequences. Freedom cannot exist without responsibility.
If you want the right to choose to have sex with whomever you want whenever you want, you can't act surprised when a child shows up, even if you didn't intend to have one. Especially if you knowingly dropped birth control.
And sometimes more than one child shows up. Having brought that child or children into the world through your actions, you bear a responsibility for the resulting life or lives.
It is life. Maybe not fully formed. Maybe not fully conscious. Maybe not fully functional. But even Sen. Kerry, while promising to defend "a woman's right to choose," admits that it is life.
Which means that "selective reduction" is not the same as breast reduction. Or having an appendix removed. Or most any other medical treatment. There is another life involved.
ONE CAN ARGUE THAT the child's right to live is not absolute. We allow killings in self-defense; soldiers kill in war.
Abortion obviously doesn't fit these situations, but it's not exactly the same as murder or infanticide either. It's certainly more complicated where the mother's health (and the children's survival, in the case of multiples) is at issue.
So there's room for a debate over differing circumstances, responsibilities, regulations, and penalties. Childbearing decisions are intensely personal and any government intervention will be highly intrusive.
But accountability is fundamental, especially for a society
which claims to be both free and good. The baby is not a choice.
It is a life.
And life should not be terminated because one fears having to shop at Costco. Especially since adoption is an option that both saves the life of a child (or children) and enriches the lives of the new parents.
Of course, biology remains unfair, since the burden of pregnancy falls upon women rather than men. But abortion is not a "women's issue." It affects all of us.
In fact, some of the strongest proponents of abortion are single men, who see it as a vehicle for their own irresponsibility. Pressure for commitment and marriage are easily deflected with the retort: "get an abortion."
Moreover, the chief victims of abortion remain women. Set aside long-term physical problems, a much-contested issue, and psychological harms.
Abortion is commonly used as a tool for sex-selection. And it is usually wielded against girls. Even in an America suffused with talk of equality, parents tend to prefer boys, and they will back up that preference by making female heartbeats "disappear."
This practice is particularly evident in Asia. In China roughly 120 boys are born for every 100 girls. Unbalanced sex ratios also are evident in India and elsewhere.
IT'S EASY TO PREACH to women facing unwanted pregnancies, whether of one child or "multiples." Those interested in saving the lives of children should never underestimate the burden they would impose on recalcitrant mothers. Pro-life activists should help reduce the burden of women who reluctantly carry to term.
Adoption should be easy; support should be provided to the young, poor, and distraught. Concern should reach to the born as well as the unborn. But imposing such responsibilities on those who oppose abortion does not diminish the responsibility that people incur when engaging in the act that creates life. Choices have consequences, for which people must be accountable.
"The right to choose is a fundamental right," said Sen. Kerry in his maiden Senate speech 19 years ago. But the right to choose is fully protected in America today.
Men and women are free to choose to have sex, without birth control, as often as they like with whomever they like. They seek the "right to choose" abortion in order to escape responsibility for their other choices.
Abortion requires a difficult balancing of liberty and life. Euphemisms like "selective reduction" cannot disguise the fact that abortion kills. And the decision to kill should never be treated as anything other than the most serious moral challenge that we can face.