When the US Supreme Court made its momentous ruling on abortion eight years ago, it shocked the country. Even many people who favored legalized abortion had not expected so quick and overwhelming a victory.
A reaction has been building ever since. This week, abortion foes are pressing for a law declaring that even a fertilized human egg is a person with constitutional rights.
With television lights glaring and crowds of "right-to-lifers" packing the hearing room, a Senate subcommittee April 23 opened two days of hearings on the emotion-laden question of when life begins.
Only physicians, scientists, and geneticists have been invited to testify on the question, and virtually all are expected to proclaim that life begins at fertilization.
"By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception," said Hymie Gordon, professor of medical genetics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Other experts offered similar answers, citing the fact that the genetic makeup of the one-celled egg is the same as that of a grown person. Answering the question about when biological life begins, Watson Bowes, medical professor at the University of Colorado, testified that "the answer is most assuredly that it is at the time of conception."
"Our laws, one function of which is to help preserve the lives of our people, should be based on accurate scientific data," said Micheline Matthews-Roth, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, in her written testimony. The proposed statute is backed by accurate scientific data, she said, and "will help remind us all that we must always act responsibly toward all human life, at all stages of development."
The so-called "human rights bill," sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, states that for the purposes of guaranteeing the constitutional right to life, "human life shall be deemed to exist from conception." A similar bill has been introduced in the House. If the measure passes, it will open the door for states to outlaw abortions and even some types of birth control.
Organizations that favor legal abortions have joined forces to attack the Helms bill as a "back door" effort to amend the Constitution. Abortion foes have failed to pass a constitutional amendment, which would require a two-thirds vote in Congress. The federal human life law, however, would require only a simple majority. Both sides see the bill as having a good chance of passage, with antiabortion sentiment growing on Capitol Hill.
But a group of top constitutional scholars, including some who oppose the Supreme Court ruling, have sent a letter to senators calling the Helms bill unconstitutional.
"I don't think Congress has the power to determine when human life begins," said Charles Alan Wright, University of Texas law professor, in a telephone interview. Although he disagrees with the Supreme Court on abortion, he said that judges, not Congress, have the task of interpreting the Constitution.
The high court has already determined that a fetus is not a person under the meaning of the 14th Amendment, he said.
J. Philip Wogaman, dean of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, took issue with the Senate hearings, which are chaired by freshman Sen. John P. East (R) of North Carolina. Dean Wogaman said the Senate staff refused to let him testify, since only medical and scientific experts were to be heard.
"The question is not life in the biological sense," said the theologian. "Anyone could say that it [an embryo] is alive and that it's human." He added that the definition goes "beyond science" and requires spiritual considerations.
Karen Mulhauser, executive director of National Abortion Rights Action League , said shortly before the hearings opened that the human life law could lead to outlawing birth-control methods such as the interuterine device (IUD), which prevents a fertilized egg from implanting itself in the womb.
Senator East has set additional hearings on the human life bill for early May. Another antiabortion leader, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, was to hold joint hearings with East, but cancelled the plan.