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The Passive Majority

What good is the right to an abortion if extremists can make it unavailable?

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

(TIME, Nov. 9) -- There are no hallmark cards celebrating abortions, few testimonial dinners for those who perform them. Yet there are no other Americans, save officers of the law, who wake up each morning with a death threat over their head. Abortion providers are demonized by the radical pro-lifers, who know where they live, where their kids go to school, and proudly check off those they eliminate on a list on the Internet. But abortion providers are not equivalently lionized on the other side. Even those weeping at the funeral of Dr. Barnett Slepian, slaughtered in his kitchen in front of his family by an assassin who waited in the woods, were quick to say they were crying for the hundreds of babies he delivered, not the fetuses he aborted.

In the words of those mourners lies a hint of current attitudes toward abortion. While the desire of a majority of Americans to keep abortion legal is steadfast, it is also passive and quiet. Before too long, Slepian will join the list of doctors and their assistants killed and then buried in an unmarked media grave. Until an ad began running this week, I had forgotten about nurse Emily Lyons, maimed in the bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., clinic 10 months ago. The bomb that killed an off-duty police officer tore through the nurse's intestines, shattered her bones and ripped her left eye out of her head. She is just now able to read again.

Respectable antiabortion groups disavow violence, unlike Pro-Life Virginia, whose founder, the Rev. Donald Spitz, called Slepian's killer a hero carrying out his Christian duty. But they see their goals achieved through terror, such as the receipt, at four clinics last Friday, of letters supposedly containing anthrax, which sent 33 people to the hospital. What good is the right to an abortion if there's no way to get one? There are fewer clinics today (one in all of Buffalo, for example), and they are more widely dispersed. Far fewer doctors do the procedure, and even fewer are being trained to do it. Some clinics can't get insurance or find landlords willing to take the chance that their property will be fire-bombed.

Meanwhile, the mainstream pro-life movement gained momentum in Congress by shifting the debate to partial-birth abortion. Until then, many of us had assumed that late-term abortions were rare and unobtainable in all but the gravest circumstances. We were wrong. While it's true that most "health-of-mother" exceptions to third-trimester abortions are tragic cases, too many others are not and use health, as defined broadly by the courts to include emotional and psychological factors, to squeeze through the clinic door. And the point of viability has changed since the trimester construction of Roe v. Wade. We know from a 1991 study that 34% of babies delivered at 24 weeks can live.

Nonetheless, pro-choice leaders drew a hard line, blasting the other side's facts and motives when they should have seized the moment to advance the banning of all post-viability abortions except to save the life of the mother and maybe, if language can be made loophole-proof, for critical health reasons. By failing to acknowledge the moral questions raised, pro-choice leaders stilled the voices of many of their allies, ashamed to be on their side.

In campaigning for this Tuesday's election, pro-choice candidates have not pressed the abortion issue. It took Lyons' ad and Slepian's killing to raise it in the New York Senate race. Congressman Charles Schumer, the challenger to Senator Alfonse D'Amato, sponsored the law that gives clinics added protection against antiabortion extremists. D'Amato was in the minority voting against it. In her ad, Emily Lyons, the mother of two teenage daughters, says, "When a bomb ripped through my clinic, I almost lost my life. I will never be the same. How could D'Amato vote against a law that protects women from tragedies like mine?" How could he, indeed? No matter where you stand on abortion, you have to stand with Lyons.


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Cover Date: November 9, 1998

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