American Outlook | 11.1.02
By Alan W. Dowd

We sometimes gloss over words in our image-driven society, but when we take time to read and reflect on the meaning of words, they tell us a lot about ourselves.

H.R. 2175 is a case in point. Signed into law in early August, H.R. 2175 begins, like all legislation, with a brief explanation of its purpose. And in this case, the purpose is as simple as it is stunning: “To protect infants who are born alive.”  With those seven little words, the bill says more about 21st-century America than an entire almanac. Simply put, the nation has slid a long way since the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision.

There was a time—even after Roe—when doctors didn’t need to be coerced by government before they came to the aid of a newborn clinging to life. If nothing else, H.R. 2175 is an indication that those days are gone. Still, any step away from infanticide is a step in the right direction.

Another step in the right direction came in late August, when the White House announced plans to distribute nearly $1 million to promote “embryo adoption.” The money was tacked on to an HHS appropriation, and the purpose was simply to raise public awareness about the existence of tens of thousands of frozen embryos created for in vitro fertilization but since left in limbo. The program promises to have a much broader and lasting impact than TV ads and PSAs. As with H.R. 2175, these words speak volumes. Indeed, by using the word “adoption” instead of “donation” or “contribution,” proponents are making an emphatic statement about life.  

In vitro couples usually fertilize about a dozen eggs in order to produce a healthy embryo, which is then implanted into the mother. Leftover embryos are either discarded or frozen. Supporters of embryo adoption are hoping these orphaned embryos can be given to couples and implanted in adoptive mothers, where they can continue their development and be born.

As the Associated Press reported after the White House announcement, the embryo-adoption campaign “is making some people nervous.” Those afflicted by genetic diseases worry about research. Those who refuse to make a distinction between human embryos and lab rats worry that the program will wither vast fields of embryonic life, from which they harvest tissue and cells. And abortion advocates worry about the long-term viability of Roe v. Wade. As Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, warned, "It's part of this larger trend we see of attempting to endow the embryo with personhood status." 

Ms. Michelman may be onto something: From the very outset of his run for the White House, George W. Bush promised that he would replace Roe’s culture of selfishness and waste with “a new culture of life.” Just days after his inauguration, he re-instated the ban on federal assistance to international abortion providers. It was exactly eight years earlier that his predecessor lifted that ban and in the process helped spread the scourge of abortion into every corner of the earth. Thanks in part to Mr. Clinton's executive order, the annual worldwide abortion toll is a staggering 46 million.

By April 2001, Mr. Bush's Health and Human Services Department had notified states that Medicaid would no longer cover abortion pill RU486. In July of that year, HHS chief Tommy Thompson drafted a new policy allowing states to provide medical coverage under CHIP to “unborn children.” Then, in the summer of 2001, the president blocked federal money from being used to grow human embryos and harvest their stem cells. He followed that decision this summer by signing H.R. 2175 and launching the embryo-adoption campaign.

What makes these policies so effective—and so worrisome to abortion supporters—is how reasonable they are. Incrementally, Mr. Bush is walking us back from Roe’s unintended but inevitable consequences—after-the-fact birth control, partial-birth abortion, post-birth infanticide. As a result, it is the abortion-rights activists who have drifted out of the mainstream and into the fringe. Just as pro-lifers once warned of a downward slippery slope, abortion supporters now fear the slippery slope in reverse—to the piecemeal dismantling of Roe itself.

Indeed, the number of abortions and abortion providers is falling. In 84 percent of U.S. counties, there are no abortion providers at all. Forty states allow mothers to sue doctors or anyone whose negligence has contributed to the death of a fetus. Nineteen states have mandatory waiting periods in force. And they are having an immediate and dramatic impact: After a waiting period went into effect in Mississippi, the number of abortions fell by 22 percent.

A 1995 Gallup poll found 56 percent of Americans called themselves pro-choice; only 33 percent said they were pro-life. Today, the numbers are even. There may not yet be a pro-life majority, but there's definitely no longer a pro-choice majority. As Ms. Michelman conceded, “The other side's gaining ground.”

Perhaps we gained a little more this summer. By protecting the newly born and using the language of life to draw attention to the unborn, the president is forcing America to revisit a fundamental truth: Life is not an arbitrary thing; it has a definitive beginning and end. Without question, there is a difference between the undeveloped embryos who await adoption and the newborns who are protected under H.R.2175, but is it any greater than the differences between an 80-year-old grandfather, a 17-year-old student and a 2-year-old toddler? Humans are continually developing and changing. That, by definition, is part of life. The grandfather was once a student. The student was once a toddler. The toddler was once a newborn. The newborn was once unborn. The unborn was once an embryo.

If we can unlearn something so fundamental, then we can also re-learn it.  But it won’t be easy: It’s far more difficult to climb back up the slippery slope than to slide down.


AP, “Administration pushing embryo adoption,” August 22, 2002.

AP, “Government limits abortion pill coverage,” April 2, 2001.

Robert Pear, “Bush plan allows states to give unborn child medical coverage,” New York Times, July 6, 2001.

Beth Gardiner, “Abortion common worldwide, study shows,” Indianapolis Star, January 22, 1999.

CNN.com, “How the abortion debate has changed,” January 25, 2001.

Alicia Montgomery, “Has choice lost its support?” Salon.com, January 26, 2001.

Carey Goldberg, “Poll finds tempered support for abortion,” New York Times, January 16, 1997.