The number of abortions in the United States, for instance, fell during the last few years, the Washington Times reported Oct. 9. Abortions declined from 1.56 million in 1987 to 1.42 million in 1994, according to a report published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. And by 2000 the level had fallen to 1.31 million abortions, though some observers point out the data fail to count the chemical abortions induced by the morning-after pill.
Abortion rates for 15- to 17-year-olds saw the biggest decline, falling to 15 abortions per 1,000 teens in 2000 from 24 per 1,000 teens in 1994.
Laura Echevarria, spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee, said that laws requiring parental consent or notification about abortions played a role in lowering both teen pregnancy rates and abortion rates.
"There's also been a concerted effort over the last few years by pro-life groups, health departments and others to encourage teens to really think about the consequences of engaging in early sexual activity, and I think it has helped teens pay attention" to these situations, Echevarria said.
In the legislative field, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to strengthen conscience clauses, allowing health care providers to decline to perform abortions. Reuters at the time (Sept. 25) said the Senate was not expected to take up the bill. The bill allows any health entity, which includes health plans as well as hospitals, to decline to offer or cover abortion services without being penalized by any state or federal program.
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities, welcomed the legislation in an Oct. 8 letter written to senators urging them to take up the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act. "In recent years there has been a growing nationwide effort to attack the conscience rights of Catholic and other health care providers," noted the cardinal.
Status of embryos and fetuses
The Bush administration has also taken some steps recently to protect the unborn. The Washington Post on Oct. 30 reported that the charter of the federal advisory committee that addresses the safety of research volunteers has been amended to state for the first time that embryos in experiments are human subjects, whose welfare should be considered along with that of fetuses, children and adults.
The change does not mean that embryos used in research will necessarily be given the same protections as fetuses, children or adults. The committee can only make recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services on changing research guidelines.
But, reported the Post, the change is a victory for those in favor of increased protections for the unborn. It could even lead someday to greater restrictions on embryo research at some fertility clinics, universities and research labs.
In fact, the campaign by pro-life forces against the use of fetal tissues in medical experiments had a partial victory the other day when scientists from the University of Nebraska Medical Center announced they would be using two-thirds fewer brain cells from elective abortions in their research.
Dr. Howard Gendelman, director of the Nebraska University Center for Neurovirology and Neurodegenerative Disorders, said the reduction shows that his team is sensitive to public concerns about fetal cells, the Omaha World Herald reported Nov. 11. He said the reduction is even larger considering that it occurred while research activity and federal funding quadrupled.
A spokesman for Governor Mike Johanns, who opposes fetal-cell research, called the reduction a "very positive step."
The Nebraska University Board of Regents unanimously approved fetal-cell research in late 1999, but has since added two regents who oppose it. The university did not disclose its use of fetal tissues, until it was forced to do so by newspaper reports in November 1999.
Another step forward in the protection of fetuses was taken when the Bush administration announced it would classify fetuses as unborn children, in order to extend prenatal care to low-income pregnant women, the Associated Press reported Sept. 27.
The change means states will be able to extend health insurance to fetuses from the moment of conception by enrolling them in the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The new rules specifically allow coverage for all fetuses, even if their mothers are immigrants who are ineligible for government help.
Because the program is aimed at children, it does not normally cover parents or pregnant women, although states can get permission to include adults if they ask for it. With the new rules it will be a routine matter for states to add unborn children to their programs.
Fetus defense case
The status of fetuses was also reinforced following the decision by the Michigan Court of Appeals saying that a pregnant woman has a right to defend a fetus, even if it means killing her attacker, the Detroit Free Press reported Oct. 9. The decision overturned the conviction of Jaclyn Kurr for killing her boyfriend and ordered a new trial because the trial judge did not instruct the jury on the "defense of others" defense.
Kurr had a right to present the theory under the state's fetal protection act, the court said. That 1998 law punishes a person who harms or kills a fetus or an embryo during an assault on a pregnant woman.
Kurr, who was pregnant, had been punched twice in the stomach by her boyfriend, Antonio Pena. Kurr said she had warned Pena not to punch her again because she was carrying his child. When Pena attacked her again, Kurr stabbed him in the chest, she told police. Kurr miscarried a few weeks later.
Heather Bergmann, Kalamazoo County appellate prosecutor, said she will appeal the ruling to the Michigan Supreme Court.
About half the states have fetal protection laws, noted George F. Will in his commentary on the case published Oct. 27 in the Washington Post. The protection is only applicable in cases of aggression by third parties, not the mothers themselves when she wants to abort, given that this action is guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade.
Reconciling an abortion culture with protecting fetuses is an "impossibility," argued Will. He noted how the new ultrasound system being sold by General Electric shows a pregnant woman and her husband marveling at an amazingly clear picture of their unborn baby's features.
Yet, he observed, the Supreme Court in Roe called such babies "potential life." This, said Will, is "a weird opinion that could be forgiven if this were the 11th century, knowing nothing of embryology or microbiology -- if the beginning of life were a matter of uninformed conjecture."
"Abortion is a violation of human rights incomparable in magnitude and an atrocity for the whole human family," said the U.S. bishops in their Nov. 12 statement marking the 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Since that fateful day in 1973, over 40 million lives have been destroyed, they observed.
"We will speak out on behalf of the sanctity of each and every human life wherever it is threatened, from conception to natural death, and we urge all people of good will to do likewise," said the bishops. Many are hoping that legislators and courts will be giving greater weight to these voices in coming months.