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Monday, Oct. 23, 2000

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the medical use of mifepristone, known also as "RU486," a pill that terminates pregnancy within five weeks of conception without the need for a surgical abortion. This turn of events did not please the core of the Republican Party or its presidential candidate, Governor George W. Bush. The Republican Party Platform calls for a constitutional ban on abortions, without specifying any exceptions, even for those abortions necessary to save the lives of pregnant women.

At the first presidential debate, Republican candidate Bush — who has never publicly criticized the "pro-life" Republican Platform — suggested that he was disconcerted by President Clinton's and Vice President Gore's support for the availability of mifepristone, because they have claimed that they hope to decrease the total number of abortions in America. Bush implied that these two positions are at odds: Since mifepristone would make abortion easier and therefore, the logic goes, more common than before, no one who wishes to decrease the number of abortions should support providing women with mifepristone.

Bush's negative reaction to the FDA's long-delayed ruling, though perhaps not surprising, reveals a deep tension between the public face of the "pro-life" movement and the true agenda of many of those who oppose abortion rights.

How RU486 Addresses Bipartisan Concerns About Reducing Late Term Abortions

Even some strong supporters of the right to abortion are nonetheless ambivalent about the practice, when it occurs after a certain point in pregnancy. Though pro-choice individuals believe that no one should be forced to undergo the serious bodily intrusion of pregnancy against her will, they still hope to minimize the need for late-term abortions. The reason for this is that the later along one is in her pregnancy, the more her abortion is likely to do violence to a highly developed, sentient creature, one who can experience pain and pleasure.

Harming the sentient strikes most of us as wrong, and therefore no one celebrates the event of a late-term abortion. This is also why the "pro-life" movement has chosen to focus on a kind of late-term method that they call "partial-birth" as a paradigm abortion example to sway the public against the right to choose. Consider, however, what a true opponent of fetal suffering would say about mifepristone.

Someone who truly wished to minimize the suffering of the "unborn" would do everything in his or her power to reduce the number of late-term abortions. One very effective way of reducing their number would be to make sure that women who planned to have abortions did not have to wait very long to have them. If a woman decided to terminate a pregnancy, in other words, the most humane approach would allow her to terminate it as soon as possible, rather than having to wait until fetal development progresses further and increases the odds that the being in question suffers pain during the procedure. Mifepristone can do this (and has done this for years, in other civilized countries). It permits a woman to terminate her pregnancy in its first month, long before even "pro-life" doctors claim that a fetus is capable of experiencing pain.

The Tension Between Opposing "Partial-Birth" Abortion, And Opposing RU486

Yet the "pro-life" movement reacts to mifepristone with as much intensity as it reserved for the so-called "partial-birth" abortion, in which the late-term fetus almost certainly suffers pain. This suggests that the basis for "pro-life" discomfort with abortion has little to do with suffering — of fetuses or of women — and much to do with denying women privacy.

Mifepristone may not actually increase the sum total of abortions, since it is in some ways more physically uncomfortable than a surgical abortion and takes several days to work. What it might do, however, is insulate women who use it from the vulgar, cruel, and even threatening harassment that greets them near the entrances of abortion clinics across America. This harassment not only intimidates women but often also serves to delay abortions, because women leave and return on another day, hoping for some privacy and peace. Other "pro-life" measures, such as waiting periods, also delay abortions for women who must take days off from work to travel repeatedly to the limited number of locales in which doctors are still willing to risk being killed by "pro-life" fanatics.

What does this say about the "pro-life" activists of our country? It says that when they expose women to pictures of developed fetuses and late-term abortions, they are being dishonest. The pictures suggest that they feel compassion for the pain of the fetus, the same compassion that makes the pro-choice audience flinch at the pictures. Instead, there is little compassion there. The belief that "life begins at conception" and that all abortion should be criminal — even if accomplished by RU486, very early in the pregnancy — represents a declaration that the difference between the fetus that suffers and the embryo that does not is completely irrelevant to the "pro-life" movement. It may also explain why the "pro-life" absolutist — when answering the question honestly — will admit that he also opposes birth control, the surest realistic way to prevent unwanted pregnancies that give rise to the abortion dilemma in the first place.

Though mifepristone is an important medicine that should have been available to American women years ago, it is not only that. It is also a window into the minds of the "pro-life," those who have defined the moral agenda of the Republican Party, and of how little its conservatism has to do with "compassion." It speaks volumes about the suffering that we can expect if the Republicans are able to put their man in the White House in 2001.

Professor Sherry F. Colb is on the faculty of Rutgers Law School in Newark. She worked from 1992 to 1993 as a law clerk to Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun, author of the majority opinion in the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

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