Commentary Magazine

The Abortion Question

To the Editor:

I was more than a little disturbed by Magda Denes’s reply in the December 1976 letters section to the correspondence on her article, “Performing Abortions” [October 1976]. In her reply, Dr. Denes says in effect that the deliberate stilling of a life is murder and that abortion . . . is murder of a special and necessary sort. These sentiments betray fundamental confusion, moral and otherwise. First of all, it is simply not true that any deliberate killing constitutes an act of murder . . . (what about suicide or euthanasia?). . . . Dr. Denes’s statement can also be challenged by the anti-abortionist who might well ask, how is it possible for any act to be both murderous and necessary? This brings me to my second point, which is that Dr. Denes is being . . . morally inconsistent when she decries the act of abortion as murder on the one hand, while favoring our right to perform it on the other.

Patricia S. Herzog
Somerville, Massachusetts



To the Editor:

All the comments I have thus far seen on Magda Denes’s searing description of the mechanics of abortion miss one central point: Dr. Denes is intellectually honest. Unlike many pro-abortionists, she does not claim that the moral issue involved in the snuffing out of life in the womb is trivial or nonexistent, nor does she refuse to recognize what actually occurs during an abortion. She understands that an abortion means the forcible ending of a life, and this we usually term murder.

But if Dr. Denes is intellectually honest, she is morally hideous: in effect she argues that we must murder, if necessary, to preserve the “quality of life.” She quotes one of her subjects to the effect that being “unwanted and a lot of times uncared for” is worse than death. If this proposition is true, why limit its application to unborn life? What about the social burden of the incurably criminal, the mentally defective, the physically crippled, the elderly—or even the political opposition—all of whom are frequently “unwanted”? . . .

Charles A. Moser
George Washington University
Washington, DC.



To the Editor:

. . . First, Magda Denes says that abortion is “murder” since it is “the deliberate stilling of life.” But I would call it homicide, which, when justified, is not murder. For example, killing in self-defense or in necessary defense of others (including one’s country) is not murder.

Dr. Denes then continues: “My own position is that . . . women should be free to abort whenever they wish . . .” and that “abortion is a private decision. . . .” In other words, according to Dr. Denes, women should be free to commit homicide whenever they wish. It would follow, then, that this is justified homicide, except when a woman does it against her will. . . .

Sidney Koretz
Falls Church, Virginia



To the Editor:

Hospitals are seldom the place for pleasant sights. I would agree that the procedure for performing saline abortions can . . . be quite horrible, but I doubt that a saline abortion is any more horrible than a mastectomy, a hysterectomy, or even the labor and delivery of an unwanted child. Were I to provide the graphic details of any one of these hospital scenes, I could convince readers that these procedures should be eliminated, but . . . I would then be guilty of the most sensationalist means of persuasion.

As it happens, those of us who offer abortion-referral services would much prefer that women with unwanted pregnancies did not have saline abortions. First-trimester abortions, for which the vacuum aspirator is used, are by far the better alternative. But it is simply not that easy, at least in Canada, for a woman with an unwanted pregnancy to secure a first-trimester abortion. . . .

Until we have perfect human beings and perfect contraceptives . . . there will always be the need for abortion. The way to confront the issue is . . . to seek ways of making first-trimester abortions more easily available . . .

Susan Cole
The Abortion and Contraception Committee of Toronto
Toronto, Canada



To the Editor:

“Performing Abortions” by Magda Denes was a chilling narrative which strengthened my conviction that meaningful restrictions must be placed upon the practice of abortion. What comes through most clearly in the article is the fact that abortion has a very disturbing effect on physicians and others involved in it. Their humanity seems sadly diminished; perhaps after one has presided over thousands of deaths, this is inevitable.

One notes the unquestioned assumption that an unplanned pregnancy is such a tragedy that it must be terminated at any cost. As John Szenes, M. D., puts it: “. . . Somebody has to do it. And, unfortunately, we are the executioners in this instance.” Yet I cannot help but wonder why “somebody has to do it.” . . .

Nevertheless, I do not wish to see an absolute ban on abortions. We live in a world in which perfect choices often are not available. Abortion can be considered the lesser evil in some, though not many, instances. These matters can be defined by law, just as other sensitive matters are handled, not perfectly but adequately, by the legal system. . . .

Donald Delano
Los Angeles, California



To the Editor:

. . . The very strong language of Magda Denes’s article—the overemphasis on the description of fetal destruction—slanted the article in favor of the right to life, rather than the right to live well. . . .

The ignorance of the young girls described by Dr. Denes, who allow the fetus to grow so large before having abortions, is appalling. There must be more education, beginning at a younger age, teaching birth control rather than abortion as a means of limiting the number of unwanted offspring.

Ruth Herman
New York City



Magda Denes writes:

Unwanted pregnancy is an existential dilemma to which any solution constitutes a loss. There is no getting away from that. Abortion is one solution. There are others, equally good or equally bad depending on one’s values.

The important thing, it seems to me, is to remove the discussion of abortion from the legal-political arena and to place it where it belongs: in the realm of the human situation where one is often compromised into making a choice between alternate sorrows.

In that light, legalistic distinctions among “homicide,” “justified homicide,” “self-defense,” and “murder” appear to me a semantic game. What difference does it make what we call it? Those who do it and those who witness its doing know that abortion is the stilling of a life.

The same applies to the argument of early or late abortions. True, after sixteen weeks the mother knows her fetus has quickened. But it is also true that long before that time the physician can detect fetal heartbeat and measure brain waves.

Still (in answer to Charles A. Moser), abortion is not comparable to any other act because there is nothing that replicates the condition of a human being forced into housing an unwanted living creature in her body for nine months. Unless, of course, one thinks that the woman has committed some crime for which this is the unique punishment. It is that notion which appears to me truly “morally hideous.”

Finally, I should like to quote from my book, In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital, a few short paragraphs relevant to the issues raised in the letters:

Each propelled by who he is builds his own mythical world where this is all right, that is wrong, one thing is just, another a crime. Morality is a fluid notion. Decisions are made in the forgotten histories of people. And there, vulnerable innocence clamors for the preservation of growing things. Those who would ignore that are enemies.

And yet, the enemies of these growing things are also often innocent, and they are invariably vulnerable. Which one to choose, then, whom to affirm, becomes a crushing burden. The saints, were they to occupy themselves with such mundane matters, might decide with ease, and well. The staff [of the abortion hospital] being ordinary folk, are very uneasy. The patients more so. . . .

To say that of all things in this world the seeds are most worthy of preservation is a sentimental falsehood. The greatest of our men have died unreproduced or with progeny alien to their greatness. To say that the lives of those living are of larger import than the lives of those to come is the hubris of the generation.

Abortions reside in the realm of individual struggle, personal defeat, private hell. The enemy is embedded in being human.

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