Whatever else may be said about the august legislators of South Dakota, who have arrogated unto themselves the decision of every woman in that state as to whether to continue a pregnancy, they have accomplished something that could prove important to the entire country. Long before the repercussions reach the U.S. Supreme Court, their law criminalizing abortion may finally bring a measure of candor into this controversy.
Such honesty will not be welcome among those who have sought to placate the religious right without arousing the moderate majority. But the passage of the South Dakota bill, soon to be imitated in dozens of other states, should at last require every one of those politicians to explain why he or she believes that rape and incest demand exceptions to the anti-abortion rule.
For anyone who really believes that from the moment of conception every fetus becomes a human being, with the same inalienable rights as any other person, there can be no moral distinction in cases of rape or incest. When pregnancy results from a brutal crime, the perpetrator is not the fetus but the rapist. Yet many supposedly pro-life politicians still insist on that exception, despite its rejection by the Catholic hierarchy and Protestant fundamentalist theologians.
To demand an exception for rape or incest is and always has been strictly a matter of political convenience rather than moral philosophy. Among the pandering pols who cling to the exception—and thus evade the logic of their own argument—are George W. Bush and John McCain, along with a massive cohort of other ardently “pro-life” elected officials. They are guided by opinion polls that consistently show support for the exception among most Americans, including many who otherwise believe abortion is wrong.
Endorsing the exception conveniently allows any politician to sound more moderate without completely forfeiting his or her anti-abortion credentials. The leaders of the religious right and the anti-abortion movement have colluded with their conservative Republican favorites by permitting this little deception. They know that as a practical matter, the exception would have little effect.
Thanks to South Dakota’s legislators, who forthrightly outlawed abortion for victims of rape and incest, the old dodge has now been exposed. The passage of their bill has required certain moralizing politicians to contort themselves into comical positions.
Proving his zeal to make himself acceptable to his critics on the religious right, for instance, Mr. McCain authorized the release of a transparently stupid statement to the press. His spokesman said that the Arizona Republican “would have signed the [South Dakota] legislation, but would also take the appropriate steps under state law—in whatever state—to ensure that the exceptions of rape, incest or life of the mother were included.” Signing the legislation, of course, would have outlawed the exceptions.
Presidential ambition is twisting the Senator’s “straight talk” these days, but Mr. McCain isn’t alone in trying to satisfy the religious right without alienating mainstream voters. The Republican governor of South Dakota signed the bill, while simultaneously trying to disown it as something that legislators “chose to do” on their own. Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who unseated Democrat Tom Daschle with anti-abortion rhetoric, promised to “continue to watch [the South Dakota bill] closely as it moves through the courts.” How courageous!
In Washington, the President’s press secretary responded to questions about the bill by noting that it was a “state matter,” and that the President always seeks to build a “culture of life,” except for those fetuses conceived in rape or incest. It would be interesting to hear Mr. Bush articulate the reasoning that led him to that contradictory position.
As we move toward the day of reckoning in the Supreme Court and in state capitals across the country, Americans will have to consider an even harder question. It’s an issue that most abortion opponents do not dare to confront.
Under the South Dakota bill, abortion will become a felony, but only the doctor who performs the procedure is subject to prosecution. The woman who seeks and pays for the operation is not. Yet if abortion equals murder and must be outlawed, then why should doctors but not patients be subject to criminal penalties for participating in an illegal conspiracy?
For anyone who truly believes that terminating a pregnancy is the same as homicide, there can be no moral justification to indict the doctor without prosecuting the patient as well. Such a law denies equal protection to physicians and might well be held unconstitutional—even if there is no right to privacy that shields abortion itself.
It is long past time for Americans to consider these issues with the seriousness they deserve and stop behaving like the politicians who pretend to have it both ways. They should understand that if the religious right wins this struggle, the consequences will be extreme indeed—and there will be no exceptions.