Face the Fetus

Politics and policy.
March 29 2004 6:28 PM

Face the Fetus

It's time for abortion rights advocates to stop denying reality.

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Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, turned that moral observation into a legal observation. "The Feinstein amendment does not punish the criminal for harming or injuring the baby," he noted. "It only punishes the criminal for 'interrupting or terminating a pregnancy.' … So if a child is injured, not killed, the pregnancy not terminated, the Feinstein amendment will not cover it." DeWine went on: "When it describes the punishment, it refers to injury or death. Whose injury or death are we talking about here? … The Feinstein amendment doesn't recognize that the interruption and termination of the pregnancy means the injury or death of the fetus, because it won't acknowledge the fetus, of course, as a separate being. …The injury or death provision has no object."

This is what happens when you deny reality. You have trouble making sense. You use words like "injury" and "death," forgetting that you've refused to acknowledge the existence of anything capable of being injured or dying.

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Feinstein has a particular track record of denial on this subject. On June 14, 2002, defending stem cell research that entailed the destruction of cloned embryos, she told her colleagues, "This stem cell research can only take place on an unfertilized egg. This is important because many of the opponents of stem cell research say, 'Aha, this is an organism capable of being a living being.' It is no different than a clump of blood cells. They are alive. Those blood cells are not capable of becoming a human being. … An unfertilized egg is not capable of becoming a human being."

Tell that to all the unfertilized eggs that have become cloned mammals in the last seven years.

In Thursday's debate on UVVA, Feinstein charged, "The bill says a one-day-old fertilized egg is a member of the species Homo sapiens. Translation: It is a person." But those two sentences aren't an accurate description of UVVA. The first sentence is a fact; the second is a mistranslation. A human embryo is a member of our species. But that doesn't mean it's a person. An adult is a senior member of the species. A child is a junior member. A viable fetus is a more junior member. A pre-viable fetus is a still more junior member. A zygote is the most junior member. You can argue that personhood begins at viability while admitting that human distinctness begins at conception. On the other hand, if you deny the human distinctness of the fetus, most people will stop listening to you. Given a choice between calling the fetus a child and calling it a pregnancy, they'll call it a child.

That's the choice abortion rights advocates have offered the public and the Senate in the debates over cloning, prenatal health insurance, and violence against pregnant women. In two of the three cases, their rigidity has turned a morally and politically winnable debate over whether the fetus is a person into a morally and politically unwinnable debate over whether the fetus is a distinct human entity deserving of legal consideration as a member of our species. Such consideration need not override Roe's central principle that a woman's privacy rights trump the legal value of a pre-viable fetus. In fact, it can rest on Roe's acknowledgment of the state's "important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life." Many states already criminalize, in language compatible with Roe, the killing or wounding of a fetus during an attack on its mother.

"If a state can put someone in jail for life because they took the life of an unborn child, then we're clearly saying there is something very valuable there," Feinstein warned Thursday. She wasn't endorsing that conclusion. She was reading aloud, with disapproval and alarm, the words of a Nebraska state senator. Guess what: There is something very valuable there. And if you can't see it, we can't hear you.

Correction, March 31, 2004: This article originally and incorrectly said that four senators who voted for the pro-Roe amendment in 2003 voted against the Feinstein amendment to UVVA in 2004. The correct number is five. (Return to the corrected sentences.)

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