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Sue Lani Madsen: As Roe v. Wade approaches milestone 45th anniversary, questions of viability, abortion on collision course

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wasn’t on the Supreme Court when Roe v. Wade was decided 45 years ago. But in 1983, she wrote a dissenting opinion in a subsequent abortion case. “The Roe framework … is clearly on a collision course with itself … As medical science becomes better able to provide for the separate existence of the fetus, the point of viability is moved further back toward conception.”

Given the rapid pace of advancement in medical science, that collision may well come before Roe v. Wade’s 50th anniversary.

Fetal viability is currently about 22 weeks, limited by the ability of babies’ premature lungs, digestive systems and kidneys to handle functions that still need a placenta. A human artificial womb is less than a decade away and will transform neonatal intensive care, pushing viability up to conception as Justice O’Connor predicted. Abortion will collide with viability.

The Walk for Life Northwest in Spokane on Saturday is part of the national movement to call attention to the number of people who believe abortion is wrong. “We’re not judging anyone who has sought abortion in their desperation, but it’s not a good thing for women, children or society at large,” said organizer Charlotte Oliva. “It’s so difficult to talk about. We’ll be highlighting services available to help women with a crisis or unplanned pregnancy.”

Oliva’s group plans a quiet and peaceful family march, with no graphic images of abortion to disturb the visual peace. Last year a counterprotest from a fringe group on the far right disrupted the event. “It’s frustrating,” said Oliva, “we have a permit and they don’t. The police will do what they can, but we don’t want any physicality. That’s not who we are.”

Then there’s the chance of protesters from the left supporting no restrictions on abortion until baby’s first breath, far outside mainstream American values. Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life America, co-wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in July 2016:

“U.S. abortion law (which permits abortion for any reason until viability, about 22 to 23 weeks) already makes many progressive countries in Europe (which set their threshold for abortion at 12 to 13 weeks) look like pro-life radicals.”

Democrats for Life America is a small movement within the party with chapters in only seven states, none on the West Coast. She was reacting to the Democratic Party platform, which calls abortion an essential health care service and sets a goal of removing all barriers.

It’s a platform out of line with Roe v. Wade and subsequent Supreme Court rulings. When Justice O’Connor wrote the majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, she reaffirmed the concept of viability as the standard, and held the “State has legitimate interests from the outset of the pregnancy in protecting the health of the woman and the life of the fetus that may become a child.”

And it ignores medical science. Last October, Denise Hardy, covering health issues for the New York Times Magazine, observed as doctors in Houston performed a surgical repair on a 24-week-old fetus with spina bifida while he was still in his mother’s womb. Baby received anesthesia to control pain. Baby was a patient as well as his mother.

We rely on doctors to look out for the best lives of all their patients. The original Roe v. Wade decision recognized the long history of the abortion debate, predating Christianity. The original Hippocratic Oath for physicians vowed “I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion.”

The justices in Roe pointed out that ancient Greek and Roman writings have no objection to abortion at least prior to viability, with the exception of the Pythagorean school, which held “the embryo was animate from the moment of conception, and abortion meant destruction of a living being … the Pythagorean school of philosophers [also] frowned upon the related act of suicide.”

Medical technology changes the context but doesn’t change the question of life. For Oliva, the answer is simple. “We want every life to be valued.”

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