[Editor's Note: The announcement that the Bush administration plans to offer special medical insurance for "unborn children" ought to be a source of concern for every American who cares about separation of church and state. This column appeared in READER WEEKLY (19 July 2001), p. 6.]


Jim Fetzer

The massive corruption of the administration of George II continues to be displayed by

* its tax policy, which gives massive tax benefits to the rich while impoverishing the government's ability to conduct social programs for everyone else;

* its energy schemes, which enhance the fabulous wealth of the gas and oil companies at the expense of hardworking, automobile-dependent, American families;

* its environmental rollbacks, which promote the release of C02 into the atmosphere and subvert decades of international planning to maintain a habitable world;

* its defense programs, which exchange long-standing ABM treaties that have preserved the peace for fantastic boondoggles for the military-industrial complex;

and now--we knew it was coming, but not the form it would take--an assault upon the rights of women to control the use of their own bodies in the seductive language of

* its medical initiative, which would define "an unborn child" as a person eligible for medical insurance, which subverts the Constitution and Roe v. Wade.

Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee has offered his endorsement for this approach, remarking, "An unborn child ought to be recognized as a full-fledged member of the human family in law and public policy". Laurie Rubiner of the National Partnership for Woman and Families, by contrast, has been less impressed, observing, "This is a backdoor attempt by the Bush administration to perpetuate its opposition to abortion rights. The real goal is to establish a legal precedent for granting personhood to fetuses". And there should be no doubt that, however innocuous this initiative may appear on the surface, its emergence ought to be a source of anxiety for every citizen.

The core issue concerns what it takes to be a "person" with such legal rights as might accompany that status, which depends upon and varies with the meaning of that word. Within the framework of our Constitutional system of government, the interpretation of the meaning of laws ultimately falls to the Supreme Court. In Roe v. Wade (1973), for example, the Court distinguished between three trimesters of pregnancy, where states could not interfere with reproductive practices during the first trimester but could regulate how abortions, in particular, were performed during the second trimester.

The Court held that abortions during the third trimester could be performed only to preserve the life and the health of the pregnant woman. Many opponents of women's reproductive rights hold, as did George I, George Herbert Walker Bush, that abortions should be permissible only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman. No exceptions are granted for pregnancies involving birth defects, brain damage, or other problems, including the health of the woman. Considerations about quality of life and family planning, especially, are not supposed to matter in arriving at these decisions.

At the roots of the controversy are religious beliefs about the beginning of human life, about leaving reproduction in the hands of God, and even punishing those who would separate the pleasures of sex from the obligations of procreation. No one should doubt that human life begins at conception, where the zygote stage endures for the first two weeks, the embryo stage for the next six more, and the fetal stage for the duration. The question is not whether these are stages in the development of human life, which ought to be obvious, but whether every stage of gestation is entitled to the same legal rights.

The history of legal rights clearly demonstrates ample precedent for treating different stages in the development of human lives as possessing different legal rights. Infants, for example, do not have the legal right to enter kindergarten nor do children have the legal right to drink alcoholic beverages, drive automobiles, or vote. All of these rights are attendant upon attaining certain standing, which tends to be associated with their age. While laws vary from state to state, there is the tendency, for example, to allow individuals to drive as early as 15, to drink as early as 18, and to vote as early as 21.

Most of us would probably think it was very odd to suppose that infants or children ought to be allowed to drive, to drink, or to vote. But that would be appropriate if the principle of granting to every stage in a human life the same legal rights were true. It does not take a rocket scientist to observe that the implementation of such a practice would not merely be inappropriate but actually absurd. Stated this baldly, the fallacy involved here becomes apparent. But the Bush administration, unwilling to admit the motives that drive it, pretends instead that what it is proposing is a new program to provide health care coverage to low-income children by expanding medical coverage.

George II is not the first president to have observed that women become pregnant and that pregnancy is a condition that deserves medical coverage. Under Medicaid, for example, states are required to provide prenatal care and maternity coverage for women with incomes up to 33 percent above the federal poverty level, where most of the states--39 out of 50--have higher income ceilings. That his alleged rationale does not seem to be his real rationale is also apparent from an absence of any plans for the administration to pursue more federal funding for children's health programs. What cannot withstand the light of day must thus be conducted under the secrecy of night.

Its use of the word "person" indiscriminately to cover all stages in the development of human life does not respond to the Supreme Court's thoughtful ruling, which separated the first trimester during which heart and brain activity is established and the second trimester during which the fetus attains viability from the third trimester. The Court's decision takes the ability of the fetus to survive unaided apart from the intrauterine environment as the standard for attaining the standing of personhood, with the rights that are appropriate to persons at that stage of their development. But those rights, like the rights of other "persons", are qualified by their specific stage of development.

Those who want to leave reproduction in the hands of God ignore the consideration that there are many different attitudes toward religion, where their approach may not be the most responsible. There are many alternative conceptions of (one or more) gods, where the most popular are not necessarily the most defensible. It is as impossible to prove the existence of one God as it is the existence of two or more gods. The citizens of this country include atheists, who believe that God does not exist, and agnostics, who decline to take a stand. Surely their legal rights should not be abrogated on religious grounds. Absent minority rights, democracy becomes no more than the tyranny of the majority.

As for punishing those who separate the pleasures of sex from the responsibilities of procreation, even responsible adults who take appropriate precautions do sometimes incur unintended pregnancies. Those who would insist that every woman carry to term to satisfy their religious preferences violate their right to their own religious practices. Freedom of choice allows every woman to choose what she considers to be appropriate for herself and her situation. No one is compelled to undergo an abortion and no one is compelled to carry to term. But that freedom must be exercised within the constraints imposed by the law, especially in conformity with the Court's decision in Row v. Wade.

These are crafty people, who know how to pervert language to gain political advantage. They did so by presenting Bush as a "compassionate conservative" during the campaign, only to initiate his term in office by abolishing support for international agencies that offer information about family planning abroad. This administration is not "moderate" but "extremist", pandering to fanatical elements of the religious right who do not care for democratic process or individual rights and would have the United States become a religious republic like Iran or Afghanistan. That is the direction they want to move.

Jim Fetzer, a professor of philosophy at UMD, believes academicians have a moral obligation to engage in debate about important questions of public policy.




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