Obama and late-term abortion

An addendum to "Are Democrats Backpedaling on Abortion Rights?"

Published July 8, 2008 9:41PM (EDT)

Editor's note: Salon published an article by Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling on the Democrats and abortion rights. Kissling forwarded this addition after the piece was published.

When Kate and I wrote our piece last week, "Are Democrats Backpedaling on Abortion Rights?", Obama's comments to Relevant magazine on mental distress and late-term abortions had not been published. Speaking only for myself, I was troubled by them. Not because Obama holds that late-term abortions (and I assume he means those in the third trimester) should be the legal exception rather than the rule. Roe holds that the states can prohibit third-trimester abortions for health reasons, although it does not specify a method for determining this. Several pro-choice members of Congress are on record as supporting limiting such abortions to circumstances where there are serious health risks for the woman. These members have never suggested excluding mental health risks.

It is not clear if Obama is further narrowing the meaning of serious mental health risks or simply saying that mild "distress" is not a serious diagnosable condition and would not qualify as an exception. That would leave open what other mental health conditions would be serious health grounds for a third-trimester abortion. I hope this is what he meant.

At the same time the remark smacks of the kind of pandering I am worried about. To satisfy those opposed to all abortions, candidates are willing to make remarks that diminish women's moral sensibilities as well as rights and feed into right-wing antiabortion beliefs that women and doctors will find a loophole to allow abortion under any circumstance at any time in pregnancy. For Obama to feed into that sentiment, even unwittingly, is unacceptable.

The limits or boundaries to a pro-choice position are not carved in stone. Some supporters have absolutely no limits and believe abortion should be purely the decision of the woman whatever stage of pregnancy. They are in a distinct minority, numbering about 17 percent of the population. Most pro-choice supporters, including me, believe some limits are reasonable especially if one believes that some balance between women's autonomy and rights and fostering a society in which life in all its forms is respected would be wise. It would take more space than I have now to flesh out that concept, but at a minimum, viewing abortion in the third trimester as an exception over which medical evaluation is appropriate is beyond the pale of pro-choice views.

What is actually most absurd about the way we talk about third-trimester abortions is the sqeamishness about acknowledging that the most frequent reason for such abortions has little to do with women's health and more to do with fetal health and child survival. These abortions occur when women discover late in wanted pregnancies that the fetus is so severely damaged that birth would result in a condition that is incompatible with child survival and well-being.

By Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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