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Jewish World Review July 27, 2001 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5761

George Will

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When a fetus is a patient -- THE voices of compassion have again been raised in alarm against the Bush administration. Its offense this time is a desire to increase the access that low-income pregnant women have to prenatal care.

The problem began when the Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to health officials of the states, notifying them of "a new opportunity to provide health care coverage to low-income children through the State Children's Health Insurance Program." The letter said the administration would propose that "an unborn child may be considered a 'targeted low-income child.' "

"Pro-choice" forces are alarmed by this attempt to expand medical choices. Those forces know that the logic of their agenda -- unlimited abortion on demand -- requires them to consider the term "unborn child" a provocation, even an oxymoron. Laurie Rubiner, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, a pro-abortion lobby, said the administration's "real goal is to establish a legal precedent for granting personhood to fetuses."

But the real problem for pro-abortion forces is that medical advances are neither dependent on, nor waiting for, the law to recognize the new facts that science is creating. The fetus is, in many and multiplying ways, a patient. That is wonderful news for everyone -- except pro-abortion forces, who cling with increasing tenacity and decreasing plausibility to their dogma that the fetus must never be considered a person.

Prenatal medicine is a rapidly expanding facet of today's astonishing advances in diagnostic and therapeutic capabilities. Obstetricians increasingly speak of there being two patients in every pregnancy. An expanding range of acquired distresses or genetic disabilities of "the patient within" can be treated by a growing array of pharmacological and surgical measures. For more than 700 pages about this, consult "The Unborn Patient: The Art and Science of Fetal Therapy," which had its genesis at the University of California's Fetal Treatment Center in San Francisco.

This summer's argument about embryonic stem cell research has been, inevitably, recondite regarding the science involved. But it is directly related to the more familiar abortion debate because both force decisions about how to think about life at early stages. And the fundamental fact about abortion is not at all complex or uncertain. It is that abortion kills.

How we should describe -- which means how we should regard -- what abortion kills is the vexing question that the Supreme Court improvidently thrust into the center of American politics 28 years ago. But it is an indisputable scientific fact, not a theological or philosophical opinion or speculation, that abortion kills something, just as unambiguously as insecticides kill insects and herbicides kill weeds.

Pro-abortion forces flinch from this, as when Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League famously said that during a partial-birth abortion the baby "undergoes demise." And in 1973 the embryologists on the Supreme Court said in Roe v. Wade that a fetus is "potential life."

Oh? Potential life with fingers, eyes and a beating heart in the first trimester? Not that trimesters have any medical or moral significance: One wonders what the Supreme Court, which invested with constitutional significance the fact that nine is divisible by three, would have manufactured in the way of constitutional law regarding abortion if the number of months involved in the gestation of a human infant were a prime number -- say, 11.

Never mind. As novelist and physician Walker Percy once said, "How much more convenient if we lived in the 13th century, when no one knew anything about microbiology and arguments about the onset of life were legitimate." A new inconvenience -- an annoyance, probably -- for pro-abortion forces is "volumic sonography," which is three-dimensional ultrasound technology that provides "a window into the womb." Although this technology is still evolving, it already provides pictures of living beings that look remarkably like babies. Imagine that. And this technology, which makes visible such deformities as spina bifida and cleft lip and palate, will speed the development of medical interventions for fetuses -- patients -- in distress.

It is estimated that at least half the women who currently discover they are carrying a child with spina bifida -- caused by a failure of the spine to close during development -- choose abortion. That choice will become less compelling and more morally problematic as new technologies make the reality of the baby more visible, and as new medical techniques make therapeutic interventions in utero more successful.

Which will please everyone, except, perhaps, pro-abortion forces.

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