Ever since Roe took on Wade before the Supreme Court, abortion has been a great debate for the ambidextrous. Americans have argued the issue with two hands and two minds until they arrived at a stalemate. To put it succinctly, they don't really like abortion, and they don't want it outlawed.
The basic public-opinion polls on this haven't changed in several years, although a huge percentage of Americans collected from both sides are uncomfortable with their own position. We seem stuck in an endless ideological mud season.
But while we are spinning our wheels in one place, there is a new technology heading down the road that pushes the old arguments in a ditch. RU-486, a drug developed in France and being tested there and in California, may do more to close down abortion clinics than all the pro-lifers have done, but not in the way they expect. It may make early abortions a totally private matter.
The French doctor who discovered RU-486 -- named for the drug company Roussel Uclas and its own molecular structure -- calls it a "contragestive," something between a contraceptive and an abortificient. What it does is to prevent the cells in the lining of the uterus from getting progesterone. Without progesterone the wall of the uterus breaks down just the way it does for menstruation.
RU-486 can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus, making the drug more like birth control. It can also ensure that an implanted egg sloughs off, making it more like a chemical abortion. A woman could use it either as a once-a-month pill or as an early abortion pill.
This is not something you'll find at the pharmacist this week. It will be five years before any form of RU-486 is available for the U.S. marketplace. Unlike the so-called "morning-after pill," RU-486 doesn't contain any estrogen, or estrogen side effects, but there is much research to be done. A public that has been through pill scares and IUD horror stories is and should be highly skeptical about the safety of any new drug.
It's much too early to assess the medical questions. But it's not too early to start thinking about political and moral side effects.
Today the ethical dilemma of abortion is focused most sharply on second- trimester abortions, and particularly on those weeks when it is legal to abort the same fetus that might be saved by neonatal intensive care. As Sandra O'Connor wrote in a recent Supreme Court decision, abortion law is on "a collision course" with medical technology.
This newer technology could derail the collision. RU-486 works in the first six weeks, before doctors perform surgical abortions, and when the support of the public is much greater. There are no "silent screams" at two or four or six weeks. There are no abortion clinics to picket or bomb when the procedure is chemical. It is an alarming prospect for pro-lifers.
But that doesn't mean that RU-486 would be unequivocally cheered by pro- choice people. A safe and nearly painless abortion would benefit patients, but only a hard-core few are comfortable with the notion of using abortion for birth control. RU-486 would surely increase that use. Pro-choice people have tried to keep the line between birth control and abortion clear. This chemical by its very nature mixes the usage.
Pro-choice people also believe in just that, choices. At their best, clinics and counselors encourage women to make decisions, to take responsibility. Abortion ought not to be traumatic, but should be serious. Yet, a woman can take RU-486 without knowing whether she is pregnant and therefore without knowing whether she is getting an abortion. The moral questions would be easy, perhaps too easy, to avoid.
There is an irony in all this. In l972, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was a private matter. Since then it has been a most public debate. In and out of Washington, opponents are locked into the trenches of permanent conflict. In public- opinion polls, the ambidextrous Americans hold their ground with both hands.
Yet in the distance, a new invention of medical technology may simply and irrevocably moot the whole controversy. Abortion may become as private in fact as it is in law, as private as taking a pill in your own home.