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How technology is reframing the abortion debate.

Callahan D. Hastings Cent Rep. 1986.


Since the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, medical and scientific developments have focused greater public and professional attention on the status of the fetus. Their cumulative effect may influence legal, social, and moral thought and set the stage for a change in public opinion and a challenge to legalized abortion. There is as yet no inexorable convergence of medical data and legal opinion that would undermine the rational of Roe v. Wade. But the prochoice movement must find room for an open airing of the moral questions if abortion is to remain what it should be--a legally acceptable act.


Callahan examines technological developments affecting the fetus that have occurred since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 and discusses the manner in which resulting changes in public attitudes toward fetal status could challenge legalized abortion. Progress in neonatal care has lowered the age of fetal viability; sonogram pictures have "humanized" the fetus; occupational hazards to the fetus have been recognized; and fetal therapy is in prospect. The author foresees that these developments may undercut the reasoning of earlier court decisions, have psychological effects leading to a refashioning of moral views, and produce a social trend away from concern with the public health benefits of abortion to the clash between fetal and women's rights. He analyzes various feminist and prochoice positions on abortion and urges prochoice adherents to acknowledge that new medical developments are contributing to the moral uncertainty of abortion decisions.


The prochoice movement in its most political manifestation is particularly vulnerable to recent medical and scientific developments. It has never made sufficient room in its public stance for a serious consideration of the fetus. Simultaneously, by deliberately cultivating a supposedly neutral, therapeutic language toward the medical act of abortion, calling it a "procedure," a "termination of pregnancy," and so on, it mistakenly seems to think it can pacify and comfort the conscience, minimizing and denaturing some unmistakeable realities. Medical and scientific developments which threaten the prochoice movement include the lowering age of viability, the emergence of neonatal medicine, the use of the sonogram, embryological knowledge, and late abortions. In attempting to understand the possible impact of the medical developments on the abortion debate, their interaction with other crucial ingredients in the debate will be important. Of special significance are public opinion, the question of the personhood of the fetus, pertinent court decisions and trends, and feminist arguments and political tactics. There is still time for prochoice adherents to show themselves as willing in practice as in theory to concede the moral uncertainty of abortion decisions. If that is not done, the combination of the new medical developments and too many people for too long holding their doubts at bay may well begin shifting opinions. In that event, the prochoice movement will have done itself far more damage than those who try to stop it by bombing abortion clinics.


3514547 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

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