don't know what you give a legal decision for its tenth anniversary. I don't know the proper etiquette. But it's been a decade now since Jan. 22, 1973, when a young woman who had been raped and impregnated in Texas won the right for any woman to have an abortion in the United States. Surely some notice is due.
I suppose that those who regard Roe v. Wade as a tombstone would like to offer funeral wreaths. Others who regard it as a landmark would weave and wave banners. But maybe we ought to produce something more functional for this anniversary: a new vocabulary.
It seems that we've been stuck for a decade in a verbal war of attrition. Two groups have settled into bunkers labeled "right to life" and "right to choice." They have lobbed names and accusations at each other across the public terrain in an endless debate through courts and legislatures. The public argument has been cast permanently into a series of confrontations, one side against another, one set of rights against another.
The reasons for this deadlocked debate are understandable enough. In court we are only allowed to argue in the restricted language of the Constitution. The complex moral dilemmas of abortion end up straitjacketed by Constitution-speak. In the end, we can only talk about individual rights, right to life and rights to privacy.
The irony is that the argument that goes on in the legal system is so removed from the argument that goes on in the mind of a woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy. The private struggle is less over rights than over responsibilities. It is less abut conflicts with others than connections to them. It has less to do with the ability to carry a pregnancy for nine months than to care for a child for 18 years.
Carol Gilligan, whose work on women's development, "A Different Voice," was based in part on her research with pregnant women facing this decision, never found one who fit the callous stereotype implied by the phrase "abortion on demand." Her women did not boast about exercising their "right" to an abortion.
They asked themselves, rather, questions about caretaking and responsibility: "Am I prepared to take care of this life? Is it irresponsible to have a child I cannot take care of?" She heard these questions from teen-agers who initially wanted a baby "because I'm lonely" and she heard it from older women trying to imagine the impact of a new baby on families that were barely holding together. "Labeling abortion as a selfish choice," she says, "didn't always hold up."
At the same time, these women did not engage in metaphysical arguments about "life." In the courts and Congress, we hear one group insist that the fetus is a life and abortion is murder. We hear another group counter with philosophical and biological arguments: what is a human life? But in private, in the lives of women, the crucial fact is not the existence of life in the womb but in the world.
As Gilligan describes it, "It's because they know it's a life they're talking about that the issues of choice and responsibility are so key. Women are trying to say that to bring a life into the world means to take care of it."
I suspect that we intrinsically understand that this is not an argument about abstract principles but about human responsibilities. In poll after poll, most of us want to leave this decision up to the pregnant woman. We know instinctively that unless we're willing to take care of every unwanted child from birth to adulthood, we have to leave the decision to the woman. We have to give the right to one who carries the responsibilities.
But it is unsettling that there is, literally, no way to come into the legal system discussing this complex moral view. The language of law has few words in common with the language of personal decisions.
In court, we speak in the strident words of individual rights, insisting that one is more important than the other. Out of court, we speak about the interlocking web of responsibilities for each other.
I wish there were a new vocabulary to offer up for this anniversary, but I cannot find one that can be understood in both places. We are stuck now as we were on the day in January 1973 when the story of a woman's life was first translated into a matter of rights.