Friday, May 8, 2009

Good Politics and Good Ethics about Abortion

An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal described how President Obama has convened a group of abortion rights opponents and supporters to help develop policies both sides can get behind.

This is probably smart politics. It may lead some pro lifers to see the President more favorably. But it's definitely good ethics.

Some years ago, when medical ethics was taught as an elective at Harvard Medical School (it's a required course now), my colleague & friend Lachlan Forrow (president of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship) and I co-taught the course together. We didn't see how a course on ethics could avoid discussing abortion, but we feared that simply discussing it pro and con would get nowhere, since most people would just be repeating fixed opinions. We decided to approach the issue from the side, through discussing the pros and cons of "selective reduction" in triplet pregnancies, where reducing the pregnancy from three to two increases the likelihood of survival. We also discussed whether an OB/GYN program that included training in abortion should accept or turn down an otherwise well qualified candidate who opposed abortion and refused to participate.

In retrospect I wish we'd asked President Obama's question - how might we create some rapprochement between the pro life and pro choice camps? The issue of whether and how it is possible to promote constructive dialogue in intensely polarized situations should be part of ethics education.

The ideas being discussed in the White House process are constructive but predictable - reducing the frequency of unwanted pregnancies, as by making contraception more available and improving sex education, and making it easier for new mothers to keep their babies and making it easier to adopt.

But the most important outcome could be a greater readiness for the "camps" to appreciate each other's human decency.

Pro choicers should acknowledge that abortion does involve sacrificing a (pre natal) life. That's a deeply serious moral choice and a very sad event. They shouldn't see pro lifers in terms of the lunatic and criminal fringe of the movement. And the pro choice folks shouldn't be demonized as promiscuous baby killers. Comparing abortion to the Nazi gas chambers is preposterous logic and grotesque ethics.

But it's important to have realistic expectations about dialogues of the sort the White House has convened. In 1994, after John Salvi murdered Shannon Lowney, receptionist at Planned Parenthood, and Lee Ann Nichols, receptionist at Preterm (both in Boston), Governor Weld and Cardinal Law promoted talks between six prochoice and prolife leaders. The women, with two facilitators, met for more than 150 hours over the course of five years.

The talks did not lead the leaders to change their basic views, but they did promote a change in tone in the public debate. The "sides" came to see their "opponents" as as people of integrity and decency who held wrong views. But heightened recognition of each others' humanity in Massachusetts did not prevent James Kopp from murdering abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo in 1998. And if there is a Salvi/Kopp clone skulking about somewhere, the White House talks will not bring him to sanity.

The fact that even the deepest ethical dialogue has finite impact shouldn't dissuade us from promoting the process. For me one point of the Garden of Eden story is that even an omnipotent creator doesn't have full control over what our species will do!

Here's the final paragraph from a superb Boston Globe article written by the participants in the Massachusetts abortion dialogues:
We hope this account of our experience will encourage people everywhere to consider engaging in dialogues about abortion and other protracted disputes. In this world of polarizing conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility: a way in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society.

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