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Jewish World Review Oct. 2, 2000 / 3 Tishrei, 5761

Philip Terzian

Terzian
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Consumer Reports


It's a wonderful life?


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- BY AN UNHAPPY COINCIDENCE, the Food and Drug Administration approved the French abortion pill, RU-486, on the same day that the parents of seven-week-old "conjoined" twins announced that they would not challenge a British court's decision to surgically separate the girls, leaving one to die. I say "unhappy" because both cases demonstrate the weaknesses inherent in the two sides on abortion.

First, however, let's dispose of the politics. Anyone who suspects that the Clinton administration pressured the FDA to act on this controversial matter in the midst of a presidential campaign goes to the head of the class. The act of dropping the RU-486 pill into the contest for the White House came as naturally to President Clinton as, say, misusing the Strategic Oil Reserve for partisan purposes. But while Al Gore might benefit in the short run from sacrificing the oil reserve to lower gas prices, it is not certain whether RU-486 will have much effect, except to emphasize the well-known differences between the candidates. Al Gore welcomed the decision on the pill while George W. Bush lamented that RU-486 will make abortions "more and more common rather than more and more rare."

As always, on this damnable issue, I find myself isolated among a handful of agnostics.

Along with pro-abortionists, I believe that the decision to have an abortion should rest with the individuals involved -- and, depending on the age of the mother, their parents -- and not the government. Abortions may be limited in scope, and regulated by law, but should not be banned outright. Yet it is easy to recoil from the rhetoric of such organizations as Planned Parenthood, or the National Abortion and Reproduction Rights Action League (NARAL), which revel in this gisly procedure, and seem curiously devoted to what is at best a gruesome necessity.

That's a fair description of RU-486: The very idea of a convenient oral mechanism for killing a growing fetus must give pause to the most fervent unplanned parent. Brave New World seems uncomfortably close.

Which brings us to the London twins. The facts of the matter have been universally publicized, although thanks to Britain's merciful privacy laws, the identify of the parents and their offspring is unknown. The mother and father came to Britain from Malta seeking medical attention for their girls, who are joined at the lower abdomen, and one of whom has an "undeveloped brain." It was ultimately decided, by British medical authorities, that since the two girls were destined to die in their present condition, they ought to be surgically separated, saving the life of one. The parents, who are Roman Catholic, objected, claiming that G-d, and not the courts, ought to decide who lives and dies under such circumstances. And the case has divided Britain along religious, ethical, legal and medical lines.

I concede that the "quality of life" argument in this instance can be dangerous. The case for allowing one of the girls to be sacrificed so that the other might live is based, in large part, on the notion that the undeveloped brain of the doomed twin would leave her (in the words of one judge) "beyond any help." Using such a rationale, it is not hard to imagine physicians advising parents to kill off their premature babies, or giving Grandma lethal doses since she can no longer thread a needle. The "quality of life" looks one way to the life involved and another way to the loved one emptying the bedpan or awaiting an inheritance.

Still, it is difficult to see the logic in allowing both girls to die on principle. There's a painful choice to be made, no doubt, but that's what humans are capable of doing. One anti-abortionist has declared that the taking of innocent life under any circumstnces is unacceptable, and that's a fair argument. But it also demands a certain purity of vision. For the truth is that we take innocent lives all the time. When the Russians invaded Germany, or our pilots bombed Hanoi, thousands of innocent men, women and children were incinerated. Who suffers from our principled embargo against Saddam Hussein? Not Saddam Hussein. Necessities of war, or reasons of state, seem like poor excuses to their innocent victims.

Life is cheap, and disturbingly undervalued. What makes RU-486 distasteful is not the fact that it aborts a fetus, but that it transforms a complex, arduous decision into a matter of convenience. Similarly, the London twins raise a larger question: Which do we value, conviction or survival? It is admirable to protect lives that cannot defend themselves, and there is no doubt anti-abortionists have the better ethical argument. But sacrificing two girls on the basis of doctrine -- especially when one may yet be sustained -- is no better than eradicating life by popping a pill.



JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2000, Philip Terzian