Civility in the abortion debate

ANTAGONISTS on both sides of the American abortion issue are deeply disturbed by the recent turn to abortion clinic bombings -- a form of urban terrorism that has no place in a society governed by law. There have been more than 20 such incidents across the country. President Reagan rightly called for an end to such acts in his unprecedented Oval Office address to the Washington March for Life demonstrators Tuesday, the 12th anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortions: ``We cannot condone the threatening or taking of human life to protest the taking of human life by way of abortion, '' he said. The need to maintain civility in the abortion debate, which touches on deep emotional and moral issues, is almost universally recognized by Americans. Only a handful -- 5 percent by one survey -- see any usefulness in the bombings as a form of political protest, and then only so long as no one is injured. Many who oppose abortions fear a backlash.

The public debate appears headed for more intense emotional appeals as it is, with video documentaries and other techniques intended to make the anti-abortion case more graphic. This trend too can hardly be welcomed.

The public, despite a decade of controversy over abortion, has maintained a consistent view. About one-fifth oppose abortion under all circumstances, about one-fifth approve a woman's right to abortion under all circumstances, and half would approve it in certain cases such as rape, incest, or when the mother's life is in danger, in a new Gallup survey for Newsweek. Somewhat more than half say they do not question their own position on abortion, but about 2 in 5 admit to doubts.

Perhaps more to the point is how the public views what would happen if the nation returned to the pre-1973 conditions and abortions were made illegal under just about all circumstances.

Nearly 90 percent think that women would again break the law by getting illegal abortions and that many women would be physically harmed in abortions performed by unqualified people. Eighty-one percent think wealthy women would still be able to get safe abortions. Seven in 10 think more women would end up with unwanted children and that welfare costs would rise to pay for unwanted children of the poor. Six in 10 think the moral tone of America would not improve.

It has proved difficult to weigh the moral concerns about abortion -- among them, the assuming of responsibility for conception in cases where a pregnancy was not imposed upon the woman, and respect for evidences of life -- against other moral concerns, such as the woman's right to privacy and conscience.

The debate becomes more difficult yet when these concerns are set against the practical public issues of making abortion illegal, which was the public's experience before 1973: An extensive resort to illegal abortion that was unsafe for the poor, readily available for the better off, and which encouraged, as did prohibition, an unhealthy flouting of the law.

Individuals must come to grips themselves with this issue, both for their own sake and society as a whole. President Reagan no doubt is acting out of his own conscience as a citizen and as a political leader. The Supreme Court in 1973 had the difficult choice of weighing the rights of the unborn, the mother, and the social context. It decided 6 to 3 to legalize abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. Congress has since decided to exclude public funds for abortions for the poor. A differently composed Supreme Court, looking at other cases, could alter the previous decision.

It does not help, with so difficult a private and public issue, for the antagonists to resort to highly charged condemnations, physical violence, or intimidation. Legal change, if it is to come about, must be approached with civility, respect for the orderly system, and regard for the rights of those holding different views.

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