One of the reasons women feel so strongly about the abortion issue is that many of them have had to confront the question personally, and if they haven't, they have friends who have, and they know that they might have to. For women, abortion is not an abstract.
Women, as Harvard professor Carol Gilligan wrote in her book, "In a Different Voice," arrive at a decision about abortion in the context of their human connections and values about what is the right thing for them to do under their particular set of circumstances. Men, she wrote, tend to arrive at moral decisions in terms of absolutes of right and wrong.
When the decision about abortion is remote -- as it has been for most men since the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing it -- it is easier to take an absolute stand on it. This may account for the difference in the way men and women are voting in state legislatures that have recently considered abortion laws. The majority of men in most of the legislatures have voted to restrict access to abortion while the majority of women have voted against restricting access, according to a study done by the Feminist Majority.
Now, however, more and more politicians and organizations are having to take positions on abortion and are having to think through the consequences of that question in a far more personal way.
The American Bar Association is the latest to find itself embroiled in internal conflict over its stand on abortion. On Wednesday, its House of Delegates voted 200 to 188 to rescind its position that a woman's right to an abortion was guaranteed by the Constitution. That position, taken as recently as February, led to the resignation of more than 1,400 lawyers and a loss of about $300,000 in dues. The current ABA president backed the repeal while his successor opposes it, which suggests that the ABA hasn't seen the last of this.
The same day, the National Conference of State Legislatures met, and lawmakers on both sides of the abortion issue were clearly unhappy that they had to deal with it. According to a story in The Washington Post, Rep. Kelly Shockman, a Democrat from North Dakota who opposes abortion, got a round of applause from 200 of his colleagues after he said he resented "the fact that the Supreme Court dumped this whole issue back on the states."
President George Bush, anxious to avoid a firestorm over abortion, nominated to the Supreme Court an obscure federal judge who has been on the appellate bench so briefly that he has no paper trail on abortion. What might have been called inexperience (particularly in a woman) was swiftly turned into a plus: "a clean slate," as Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) called it.
It is clear that in the present political climate, no Supreme Court nominee with a record on abortion will get confirmed without the kind of bloodletting that will leave both sides of the battle exhausted. U.S. senators appear no more eager for these battles than are state legislators.
As the complexities -- moral, personal and political -- of the abortion debate reach beyond women and begin to embroil men in a direct way, with personal and political costs, they will realize that it is not only the most divisive issue of our time, it is the most personal one.
Each legislator who realizes how difficult the issue is to deal with will have made a giant step in understanding the ordeal that women go through. Politicians and members of professional organizations who have to vote on this will think twice before they parrot terms like "abortion on demand."
And they may find that it is in their best interests to lend their weight to efforts to import the French abortion pill, RU-486. The Feminist Majority recently led a delegation of 10 scientists, feminists and health-care professionals who met with the top officials of the companies that manufacture RU-486. They delivered 115,000 petitions and a list of 250 scientists and medical researchers who support importing the pill, which terminates pregnancies in the embryonic stage.
Myron Allukian, president of the American Public Health Association, who was a member of the delegation, said that RU-486, because it is non-surgical, produces less bleeding and less chance of infection and requires no anesthetic. He warned of a potential black market if it is not imported legally, which could lead to abuses in its use.
The French abortion pill has the potential of defusing much of the abortion controversy. It is cheaper and safer, and it puts a decision about abortion back where it belongs: Between women and their doctors. As more and more political organizations are discovering when they become embroiled in this fight, this is the only place for that decision to be made that makes any sense.