THE FACTS OF LIFE

Science and the

Abortion Controversy

By Harold J. Morowitz and James S. Trefil

Oxford University Press. 179 pp. $19.95

BIRTH OR ABORTION?

Private Struggles

In a Political World

By Kate Maloy and Maggie Jones Patterson

Plenum Press. 344 pp. $26.95

A QUESTION OF CHOICE

By Sarah Weddington

Grosset/Putnam. 306 pp. $21.95

MUCH OF THE passion of our national war over abortion, like much of the discomfort of the many Americans who consider themselves cautiously pro-choice, springs from concern about the possible life of the fetus. In The Facts of Life, Harold J. Morowitz and James S. Trefil attempt to clarify the issue in an admirably clear and concise, if intellectually dense, essay. They argue that all life in the universe is a continuum from plants to humans, from the earliest forms of life billions of years ago to its most sophisticated forms today. The real question, they insist, is not the existence of life, which can be found independently in the sperm, the egg and countless other cells, not the status of person, which only adheres to a being after birth, but what we mean by "humanness."

Morowitz and Trefil argue that humanness -- that which differentiates human beings as members of a species from all others species -- lies in our verbal and intellectual abilities, which are located not simply in a brain, which other species have, but in the cortex of the brain. And the cortex only begins clear development in the fetus's 24th week of development. Significantly, the survival rate of premature infants coincides very closely with the development of the cortex. Modern medical technology has made it possible for increasing numbers of infants born at 25 weeks or more to survive; it has not significantly increased the number of infants born at 24 or fewer weeks to survive -- and there is no prospect of its doing so.

Morowitz and Trefil, who are generally restrained in their assessment of the moral and political aspects of abortion, conclude that abortion during the first two trimesters does not destroy a distinctively "human" being, but only one among many forms of life. In contrast, they liken abortion in the third trimester to the decision to withdraw life support systems from a comatose patient. In both of these cases, the decision is not merely difficult, "it is seen to be too important to be left solely to a single individual without rules and guidelines."

From this perspective, they view Roe's trimester schedule as conforming very closely to what the most reliable scientific evidence suggests. They acknowledge that science cannot help us with the many other social and moral issues that shape a national policy on abortion, notably whether minor children should secure parental consent (or its equivalent), whether there should be a waiting period between deciding to have an abortion and having it, whether spouses or partners should participate in the decision, or where abortions should be performed and by whom.

Such social and moral considerations, as Kate Maloy and Maggie Jones Patterson suggest in their moving book, Birth or Abortion, help to account for the tragedy of the abortion wars, notably the growing assumption that the "rights" of the woman and the "rights" of the fetus are pitted against each other, rather than being seen as intimately intertwined. Drawing upon interviews with women who have decided whether to have an abortion, Maloy and Patterson demonstrate that the reality of abortion has little or nothing to do with the rhetoric of the debates about it. Above all, they insist, abortion confronts pregnant women with a painful decision that will affect them for the rest of their lives. And the women who talk to them about these decisions never use the language of rights, which seems irrelevant to their situation.

The interviews led Maloy and Patterson to conclude that "unplanned pregnancy arises most often from a lack of balance and self-definition." The United States has the highest rate of unplanned pregnancies in the world. National statistics suggest that 57 percent occur among women who are not using contraception; 60 percent of the women with whom the authors spoke became pregnant because of non-use or misuse of contraception. Maloy and Patterson see these numbers as evidence of deep conflicts within many American women, especially young women, about their public and private roles. Maloy and Patterson have come to believe that for many of the women who unintentionally become pregnant, emotional needs override the desire to avoid pregnancy. For such women abortion "is never a positive choice, only a negative one."

Maloy and Patterson implicitly offer us the lives of conflicted women as a mirror of our national condition. Science alone is unlikely to ease women's conflicts, or convince them to see abortion only as a matter of rights. Their difficulty in making the decision suggests that, long before the third trimester, they take seriously the potential humanity of the fetus they are carrying. Like the majority of Americans, they want abortion available, but they do not see it as a positive good. The cruel irony remains: More often than not the defense of abortion as a private right amounts to public endorsement of the social conditions that have established us as world leaders among industrialized nations in unplanned pregnancies, single motherhood, infant mortality, and infant poverty.

In A Question of Choice, Sarah Weddington, who successfully argued the case for Roe before the U.S. Supreme Court as a matter of privacy, tells her engrossing story of the events that led her to Roe. Of special interest, she sharply reveals the extent to which Roe emerged from the specific conditions of Texas culture and politics in the 1960s. In ways that Weddington may not even now have intended or suspect, her personal history -- as a member of emerging feminist groups in the 1960s in Austin, Texas -- sheds fascinating light on the course of the struggle over the availability of abortion. I put down the book more convinced than ever that she did indeed make a difference.

A Question of Choice forcefully confirms the intertwining of the personal and the political -- the ways in which the lives of individuals affect public events. The Texas politics in which Weddington maneuvered pitted passionate progressives against entrenched conservatives. (Although Texas ranks high among the states for producing strong women leaders, it was hardly a stronghold of institutionalized feminism.) Henry Wade, the Wade of Roe v. Wade, Dallas County district attorney, enjoyed a reputation as one "of the most effective professional law enforcement men in the country." Wade defended the position that the right of the child to life superseded the right of the woman to privacy and prosecuted those who referred women for abortions. Determination to circumvent Wade and depair of favorable action from the Texas Legislature led Weddington and her friends to turn to the federal judicial system.

THE STRUGGLE, first to secure, and now to defend the Roe decision is deeply personal to Weddington. "The Roe victory was an integral part of my values and my self-concept," she writes. As a result, she does not dwell upon subtleties and complexities. As a crusader in a cause, the justice of which she never doubts -- first to save women from illegal abortions, later to ensure their "privacy" of choice -- she displays scant patience with those who hold different views. She fails to grasp that the moral ambiguities might be of genuine concern to some of her opponents. And she has no patience with the notion of modifying a woman's "right" to terminate a pregnancy according to trimesters -- the development of the fetus.

Yet Justice Harry Blackmun's medical concerns, which led to the trimester division, are largely compatible with the scientific facts presented by Morowitz and Trefil. Were it possible to imagine a recasting of the debate in the light of their arguments, it would be possible to imagine a public position in which abortion during the first six months were deemed of no public concern and abortion during the last three were deemed murder. Such a compromise would hardly satisfy extremists on either side, but it would have the virtue of acknowledging human life as a matter of public concern and responsibility, and it might even ease the moral and personal anguish of the women interviewed by Maloy and Patterson.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese teaches at Emory University and is the author, most recently, of "Feminism Without Illusions; A Critique of Individualism."