It sounded more like a high school biology class than a Senate hearing.
For two days, the Judiciary subcommittee room was filled with all sorts of lessons about the facts of "life," the birds and the bees, the sperm and the ovum.
For two days, freshman Sen. John East (R-N.C.) conducted hearings on a piece of legislation known as the Human Life Bill. This is the bill that could outlaw abortion, by definition, without even bothering with a constitutional amendment.
The scam is a pretty simple one. First Congress pretends that the Supreme Court didn't know the medical facts when it decided in 1973 to decriminalize abortion. Then Congress in its wisdom "helps" the court by defining "person" as a fertilized egg.
As East explained it when he opened the hearings on the origin of life: "If life does commence at conception, then the unborn person is protected under the Constitution. . . . Roe v. Wade would be negated."
This Human Life Bill, sponsored by Jessee Helms (R-N.C.), framed the abortion question -- and I use the word "framed" advisedly -- in terms of genetics rather than law or politics. That, accomplished, East ran the hearings like a block meetings of the Friends of the Fetus.
On the first morning, five scientists, all apparently instructed never to use the word abortion, limited their testimony to the prescribed subject: "simply to define the word 'person' in biological terms." They talked about chromosomes, zygotes, fetuses, Fallopian tubes -- everything but pregnant women.
One of the witnesses, Dr. Jerome Lejeune of Paris, highlighted the event with a lyric description of transcontinental cattle-breeding. What you do is transport a fertilized cow ovum across the ocean in the Fallopian tube of a rabbit and then transplant the ovum back into a cow uterus. (What you get, by the way, is a calf and not a cabbit.)
By the end of the first morning, to no one's surprise, the doctors had testified that biological life begins at conception. Eureka! Stop the presses!
Had anyone doubted it? Even the most ardent pro-choice advocate will willingly confess that he or she was once a zygote.
It is one thing to say that a human life begins with the fertilization of an egg. But it is quite another thing to say that a fertilized egg is, as this bill puts it, an "actual human life."
Sen. East, however, maintained the charade that he was conducting a serious medical inquiry into the origin of life, instead of an end run around the abortion issue. In his best schoolboy manner, he earnestly asked the witnesses whether they were absolutely sure of their testimony. Finally, in exasperation, Mayo Clinic Dr. Hymie Gordon said, "This is the first time I've ever been called on to argue the unarguable."
The Senate hearings were clearly set up to ask the wrong questions. They answered them in utterly predictable ways.
The Human Life Bill raises a host of sticky constitutional issues about the relationship between Congress and the courts. Congress is trying to dictate law to the courts. For this reason the Conference of Catholic Bishops has opposed HLB, and even Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has come down with a case of the qualms. He dropped out of co-sponsoring the hearings.
East has promised to call witnesses about these issues later, but the prospects for meaningful testimony are slim.
In two days of hearings, only one witness, Dr. Leon Rosenberg of Yale, expressed pro-choice views.
The deck is stacked by the language of the proposed legislation. The fierce, unabating abortion controversy in this country is not over the moment one biological life commences. It's over the tragic moment when two rights conflict.
It's not about whether a fetus has a claim to protection. It's about whether the fetus' claim is greater than the women's. Does the Constitution protect the zygote over the woman? At what point in gestation does the state have a compelling interest in the unborn?
There are those who define "person" in strict biological terms and those who define "person" in more complex legal and philosophical ways.
There are those who believe that a woman forced to maintain a pregnancy against her will is nothing more than a vessel and those who believe that a woman who has an abortion is a murderer.
But in the Senate chamber, all these deep political, legal and philosophical concerns were ignored. Finally, even one of the witnesses sighed, "I don't know why I'm here." He wasn't the only one.