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Cultural Politics at the Edge of Life

  • James Davison Hunter and Joseph E. Davis


To operate within a strictly political frame of reference, the dispute over abortion—the centerpiece of the controversy over reproduction and population control in America—would seem to be over. With the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992, many observers declared as much. Charles Krauthammer, for one, argued that “one can reasonably declare a great national debate over when all three independently (s)elected branches of government come to the same position.” In 1992 the Supreme Court reaffirmed the central holding of Roe v. Wade in the Casey decision. Given this and an apparent majority of pro-choice votes in both houses of Congress, the new President-elect vowed to make good on his campaign pledge to pass the “Freedom of Choice Act” (FOCA), the legislative equivalent of Roe, as a safeguard against any future challenges. Certainly there seemed to be grounds for such a claim.



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1. Clarke Forsythe, “Winning with Our Backs Against the Wall,” unpublished paper, 30 November 1992, 1.

2. See Alissa Rubin, “The Abortion Wars Aren't Over,” Washington Post, 13 December 1992, C2.

3. Jonathan Imber cogently lays out the future of abortion policy in light of medical advances in his article “Abortion Policy and Medical Practice,” Society, 27 (July-August 1990): 27–34.

4. Quoted in David Van Biema, “But Will It End The Abortion Debate?” Time, 14 June 1993, 52.

5. Also quoted in ibid., 49.

6. Richard John Neuhaus, “The Return to Eugenics,” First Things, March 1990, 35.

7. In Luker's frame of reference, abortion, for pro-choice advocates, symbolizes a woman's control over her reproductive capabilities. This control signals that a woman is no longer on unequal biological footing with a man; that she does not need to interrupt her career if she chooses not to, and thus she can achieve the same level of social and economic autonomy and power as a man. For pro-life advocates, abortion symbolizes an affront to the high and holy calling of motherhood. Since only women can have children, motherhood is viewed as a responsibility dictated by nature for the perpetuation of the human race. To sacrifice the life of an innocent child for the sake of economic and social autonomy is a perversion of the natural order. Accordingly, abortion signals also competing ideas about the source of meaning in life. For a pro-life woman, being a wife and a mother in the private realm of the home is intrinsically meaningful; there she can control the pace and content of her work. Paid labor outside the home is viewed as a world that inverts higher moral values for base, utilitarian values. Pro-choice women of course see it just the opposite way—the traditional division of labor between men and women relegates women to “second-class citizenship.” It is through productive labor in the public sphere, a social realm long denied her, that a woman can achieve genuine equality. See Luker, Kristin, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984).

8. The survey was based on in-person interviews with 2, 174 adults, age 18 and older, in more than 360 locations across the nation during the period of 4–20 May 1990. As is standard for the Gallup Organization, the sampling procedure for the survey was designed to produce an approximation of the adult civilian population, 18 years and older, living in the United States, except those in institutions such as prisons or hospitals. This sample base, or “universe,” approximates 169 million persons. The data were analyzed by the authors.

9. This analysis is elaborated in chapter 4 of J. D. Hunter, ibid.

10. See Berger, Brigitte and Berger, Peter, “Goshtalk, Femspeak, and the Battle of Language,” in The War Over the Family (New York, 1984), chap. 4.

11. The statement is from Douglas Gould, former vice president for communications at Planned Parenthood of America, quoted in David Shaw, “Abortion Bias Seeps into News,” Los Angeles Times, 1 July 1990.

12. Glendon, Mary Ann, Rights Talk (New York, 1991), 66.

13. Lader, Lawrence, RU-486: The Pill That Could End the Abortion Wars and Why American Women Don't Have It (Reading, Mass., 1991), 20.

14. Tamar Lewin, “Plans Stall to Put Abortion Pill in U.S.,” New York Times, 13 October 1993, A17; Dorothy Wickenden, “Drug of Choice,” The New Republic, 26 November 1990, 26; Neff, David, “The Human Pesticide,Christianity Today, 32 (9 December 1988), 16.

15. Baulieu, Etienne-Emile (with Mort Rosenblum), “The Abortion Pill”: RU-486, A Woman's Choice (New York, 1990), 18.

16. Wickendon, “Drug of Choice,” 27.

17. Editorial, “Poverty and Norplant: Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass?” Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 December 1990, reprinted in Columbia Journalism Review 29 (March–April 1991): 53.

18. Tamar Lewin, “A Plan to Pay Welfare Mothers for Birth Control,” blew York Times, 9 February 1991, A9.

19. Alex S. Jones, “An Editorial Stirs a Newsroom Feud,” New York Times, 21 December 1990, A20.

20. Paul W. Valentine, “In Balance, A Tumultuous Hearing on Norplant,” Washington Post, 10 February 1993, D5.

21. Peter Baker, “Va. Assembly Approves Norplant Money Despite Critics,” Washington Post, 12 February 1993, D1.

22. Lewin, “A Plan to Pay Mothers for Birth Control.” At least one Planned Parenthood affiliate took a different view of the “choice” question. Tina Proctor of the Planned Parenthood Federation in Aurora, Colorado, told The New Republic: “Our agency believes that if a woman chooses to accept extra welfare payments for using Norplant, it's a choice that the woman makes and if she can get something extra for using birth control, that's positive.” Matthew Rees, “Shot in the Arm,” The New Republic, 9 December 1991, 17.

23. Jane M. Johnson, vice-president, Affiliate Development and Education, Planned Parenthood of New York, “Letter—Compelling the Use of Contraceptives,” Washington Post, 27 January 1993, A18.

24. Clifford Grobstein et al., “External Human Fertilization: An Evaluation of Policy,” Science, 14 October 1983, 127, quoted in Stephen L. Isaacs and Renee J. Holt, “Redefining Procreation: Facing the Issues,” Population Bulletin 42 (September 1987): 19.

25. Quoted in Mary Meehan, “The Brave New World of Fetal Research,” National Catholic Register, 20 February 1994, 7.

26. 1987 Vatican Instruction, quoted in Isaacs and Holt, Redefining Procreation, 19.

27. Bonnicksen, Andrea, “Genetic Diagnosis of Human Embryos,Hastings Center Report 22:4 (1992): S5S11, quoted in James F. Keenan, “What's Your Worst Moral Argument?” America, 2 October 1993, 18.

28. Quoted in Mary Meehan, “Makeup of Fetal Research Panel Spells Nightmare,” National Catholic Register, 6 March 1994, 8.

29. William Tuohy, “Plan to Use Eggs of Aborted Fetuses Fuels Ethics Debate,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, 3 January 1994, 6A.

30. See the discussion in Lauritzen, Paul, Pursuing Parenthood: Ethical Issues in Assisted Reproduction (Bloomington, 1993), 2667.

31. Quoted in Robin Fox, “Babies for Sale,” The Public Interest, Spring 1993, 18.

32. Quoted in Susan Edmiston, “Whose Child Is This?” Glamour, November 1991, 237.

33. Quoted in Jeff Lyon and Peter Gorner, “Altered Fates: The Promise of Gene Therapy,” Chicago Tribune, Department of Health and Human Services reprint, 1986, 464.

34. Lamb, David, Organ Transplants and Ethics (New York, 1990), 44.

35. Kevorkian, Jack, Prescription: Medicide—The Goodness of Planned Death (Buffalo, 1991).

36. Quoted in Elizabeth W. Markson, “Moral Dilemmas,” Society 29 (July-August 1992): 5.

37. Humphry, Derek, Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying (Eugene, Ore., 1991).

38. Quoted in Shapiro, Thomas M., Population Control Politics: Women, Sterilization, and Reproductive Choice (Philadelphia, 1985), 3. This sentiment was also expressed in successful proposals to control immigration and discriminatory marriage laws. See Lappe, Marc, Genetic Politics: The Limits of Biological Control (New York, 1979), 18.

39. Cited in ibid., 49.

40. Ibid., 50.

41. Mary Meehan, “Pop Council Spins Its Web,” National Catholic Register, 9 January 1994.

42. Ibid., 9.

43. In January 1994, for example, the Clinton administration announced that it would request $585 million in spending on population programs in the fiscal 1995 budget, up from $502 million in fiscal 1994. According to Timothy Wirth of the State Department and spokesman on population policy for the administration, “When we think about what factors are going to affect the future of the world, population is absolutely at the top of the list.” Moreover, “everything that we would think of doing to further our goals of increasing political stability and living standards around the world can be compromised and destroyed by unchecked population growth.” “U.S. Seeks More Spending on Birth Control,” New York Times, 23 January 1994.

44. Lauritzen, Pursuing Parenthood, xv.

45. Gina Kolata, “Scientist Clones Human Embryos, and Creates an Ethical Challenge,” New York Times, 24 October 1993, sec. A1, 22.

46. Richard Cohen, “Dealing with Illegitimacy,” Washington Post, 23 November 1993, A21.

47. Cited in Elizabeth Kristol, “Picture Perfect: The Politics of Prenatal Testing,” First Things, April 1993, 20.

48. Richard John Neuhaus, “The Way They Were, The Way We Are: Bioethics and the Holocaust,” First Things, March 1990, 36.

49. Quoted in Rees, “Shot in the Arm,” 17.

Cultural Politics at the Edge of Life

  • James Davison Hunter and Joseph E. Davis


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