The Sea Change Caused by RU-486

The recent decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to permit doctors to prescribe RU-486 as a “morning-after” abortion drug conspicuously marks an important point in the Pro-Life / Pro-Choice debate. Actually RU-486 sounds more like an old Intel computer chip than a name associated with an important cultural event. The debate now moves from a government context to a social context.Regular readers will recall that this particular Conservative has argued that the Pro-Life people have properly framed the abortion question. At what point does a growing and developing fetus take on sufficient attributes of a human being that it should be granted the conventional rights accorded persons? However, it is my conclusion that since higher-level brain activity begins in the second trimester, the fetus is not a person in the first trimester. With reasonable restrictions, including parental notification, women should be free to choose abortion in the first trimester. At the other end of the continuum, late trimester abortions that do not involve a clear and not-manufactured threat to the life of the woman, are infanticide. It can not be case, that it is murder to kill a child outside a womb, while his or her twin in the womb can be deliberately killed.

The above argument is in general agreement with the public conventional wisdom. While not willing to prohibit early abortions, a strong majority of Americans disapprove of and would feel comfortable banning “partial birth abortions.”

Whatever, your assessment of the above argument, RU-486 hastens the day when early, relatively safe, and simple procedures for abortions will be even more available. As a consequence of this ease, it is effectively impossible to prohibit abortions. Just like the war on drugs, if the political will to pass legislation to prohibit abortion could be mustered, safe abortions could easily go underground. While a prohibition would likely marginally reduce the number of abortions, it would do so at the cost of making otherwise law-biding people criminals and probably require further erosion of Fourth-Amendment protections.

The real challenge for anti-abortion advocates is not to seek anti-abortion legislation or even a constitutional amendment extending protections to the unborn from the moment of conception. Their real job is to persuade women, person-by-person to choose to bring their pregnancies to term. Their job is to provide comfort and resources to young women who feel overwhelmed with pregnancy and might otherwise choose abortion. Their job is to provide adoption options for women incapable of raising their children. In fairness, many anti-abortion groups already do this.

As biomedical technology matures, it becomes more and more difficult to prevent, as a practical matter, determined people from having abortions. If abortions are to be reduced, it will largely happen orthogonally to formal government action. The FDA action on RU-486 just makes clearer what has been evident for some time.

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