Cover Story

One step forward

"One step forward" Continued...

Issue: "Roe vs. Wade 25," Jan. 17, 1998

But even as public opinion seems for the first time to be shifting-however slowly-in favor of the pro-life position, a new danger on the horizon threatens to change the very terms of the debate. It's as if Washington's soldiers, shivering in the Valley Forge cold, suddenly had to face an incoming Scud missile with nothing but their muzzle-loaders and cannons.

That missile was launched early last month, when Jerry Edwards, a Planned Parenthood doctor in Houston, announced that over the past three years he had performed nearly 2,500 abortions on women as little as eight days pregnant. Using a syringe, Dr. Edwards can remove the gestational sac-complete with an unborn child less than an eighth of an inch long-in just two minutes. The procedure requires no uncomfortable scraping or noisy vacuuming, and since it takes place before the woman has even missed a period or experienced hormonal changes, it may hardly seem like terminating a pregnancy at all.

The news from Houston immediately made the front page of The New York Times, and Planned Parenthood clinics across the country announced that they, too, would soon begin offering the very early abortions. Predictably enough, abortion enthusiasts lauded the procedure as a breakthrough for women. "For most women, the sooner they know they're pregnant, and the sooner they decide what they're going to do, the better," said Michael Burnhill, vice president for medical affairs at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "With these very early abortions, we're talking about a whole gestational sac that's the size of a matchstick head. It's nobody's picture of a little baby sucking its thumb."

That, for pro-lifers, is exactly the problem. Traditionally, doctors have been reluctant to perform abortions before the sixth or seventh week because inaccurate early pregnancy tests could result in botched operations. This gave pro-lifers the chance to point out how quickly an unborn child becomes recognizably a baby. And despite all their efforts to portray the child as nothing more than a piece of tissue, abortion advocates have never been able to erase completely that image of the little baby sucking its thumb.

But what will happen as more women opt for very early abortions, before the preborn child even has a thumb to suck on? How will abortion protesters make women think twice about ending their pregnancies once medical technology has smoothed the emotional edge off their arguments?

The troops in Dallas last week didn't have any easy answers. Kristene O'Dell, one of the protesters, had an abortion herself nine years ago. Now married and the mother of four, she's been active with Operation Rescue for a couple of years, but she knows the war is changing. "Frankly, I'm frightened by what I'm hearing about new procedures," she says as she leans on her sign. "You hear about how easy it's going to be, how it will soon be done in any doctor's office. It scares me."

Just moments later, a car slows at the intersection; the driver rolls down a window and asks Kristene a question: "What are you people going to do when women can just take a pill and it's over?"

"I don't know," she replies. "Pray."

The driver's question illustrates another challenge the pro-life movement will face in the coming months. While surgical abortion procedures like Dr. Edwards's are pushed earlier and earlier in the pregnancy, new techniques in so-called medical abortions threaten to blur the line between contraception and abortion-and in the process, perhaps, split evangelicals from their Catholic allies in the fight for the unborn. Thanks to FDA approval a year ago, women can now get prescriptions for high doses of oral contraceptives to be taken up to 72 hours after intercourse without prior contraception. In Washington state, some pharmacists are allowed to dispense the necessary dosage directly to women who ask, even without a doctor's prescription. For a week after intercourse, women can insert the Copper-T intrauterine device, which both stops any immediate pregnancy and serves as a long-term contraceptive. Finally, there is mifepristone or RU-486, the French abortion pill currently available only in select cities. Used alone, mifepristone is merely a more effective oral contraceptive, but taken in conjunction with another drug called misoprostol, it can cause an abortion even before a woman is sure she is pregnant.

All of these new techniques present a tricky new question for the pro-life movement: When does contraception end and abortion begin? In the eyes of medicine and the law, abortion takes place only after the fertilized egg has been implanted in the uterine wall-typically a week to 10 days after fertilization. Pro-lifers, on the other hand, note that life begins upon fertilization, when individual DNA is created distinct from that in either the sperm or the egg. Thus any procedure that destroys a fertilized egg-whether or not it is implanted in the uterus-would be murder.

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