Jewish World Review March 10, 2004 / 17 Adar 5764

Paul Greenberg

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One life or two?

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The possibility of a pregnant woman surviving an attack and losing her unborn child, only to have the law tell her no one was killed is unthinkable."

That was Marion Berry, a congressman from Arkansas, explaining - simply, undeniably - why he voted for the bill that would recognize a woman's unborn child as a victim when she is attacked.

It makes sense. Two lives are lost when a pregnant mother and her child are killed, as in the Laci Peterson case in California. Which is why 29 states, including Arkansas, make killing the child a crime, too. And why the House of Representatives has just passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act - 254 to 163.

Why would anyone vote against such a law? You know the reason: It might interfere with a woman's right/power to obtain an abortion.

Or so those voting against the bill argued. Never mind that the bill itself specifically exempts abortion - or any act of the mother that might harm the child.

Those opposed to the bill understand very well the general message it's sending - that human life is to be protected even in the womb. They know a bill can specifically exempt abortion from criminal penalties but still raise moral qualms about it.

Those trying to derail this bill, or at least gut it, understand what's going on here. And so do those proposing it. Every such proposal is one more flank attack on the central proposition underlying the legalization of abortion: that the unborn have no claim on life that the state need respect.

Protect the unborn victims of assault and murder, and who knows where it might end?

Every time abortion is challenged, even tangentially, consciences stir. Just as, in antebellum America, the constant agitation of the slavery question exposed the immorality of slavery itself.

The Peculiar Institution was threatened even when the abolitionists of the time were seeking only to limit it - in the territories, in interstate commerce, in the nation's capital - rather than outlaw it altogether.

This bill, too, deals with an issue only on the periphery of a troubling moral question. But how oppose it? How defend the indefensible proposition that no crime is committed when a pregnant woman's child is killed?

So defenders of abortion offered a compromise: an amendment that would punish an offender who "interrupted" a pregnancy, but without recognizing the unborn child as a separate victim.

Recognition must not be accorded the unborn child in his - or her - own right, not if the unthinkable is to remain the law of the land.

John F. Kerry understands. The senator from Massachusetts - and presidential nominee presumptive - has the most logical of reasons for opposing legislation like the Unborn Victims of Violence Act:

"The law cannot simultaneously provide that a fetus is a human being and protect the right of the mother to terminate her pregnancy."

Precisely. I think he's got it.

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If one bill after another is proposed and even passed to protect the unborn or (in the case of partial-birth abortions) the semi-born, the law may come to recognize the unborn child's right to life. As it once did. And abortion will be considered a low crime, as it once was, instead of a choice.

One side in this never-ending debate understands well enough when life begins. It's scarcely a mystery. The answer can be found in any biology textbook. And every ultrasound confirms it.

To quote one believer, "You do not determine what is right or wrong; you discover it, inscribed in reality."

The other side tells us we can determine for ourselves when life begins, or at least the kind worth legal protection.

In between are all the nice people who'd really rather not think about the whole thing, or who may be against abortion "personally," but wouldn't protest if others aborted their offspring.

After all, do we really need Ezra Pound's "filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor"? And it's not as if the issue were clear-cut, you know . . . .

All of which reminds me of a story a young editorial writer once told me. As a sophisticated journalist, he was trying to explain some things to his father, who came from the old school. He was telling the old man that not every issue is a simple matter of right and wrong, that some things aren't black and white but shades of gray . . . .

At which point the old man responded: "Son, there's always a right and a wrong. You just have to figure out which is which."

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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