It has been twenty five years since I addressed an audience on the
topic of abortion rights. The last time was two years after Roe v.
Wade, and I was at a seminar in Washington on how to deal with the
anti-choice movement which was then growing rapidly. I felt, and said,
that our conversation seemed to assume that we were fighting a political
campaign, which would have an end, and that I feared we were instead
beginning an enduring struggle. I immediately felt horrible - as the
only man in the room I was the wrong messenger for that message.
So I was honored when I was asked to speak here today, but more than
ordinarily anxious about addressing an audience. This was a topic
on which I had let others do the speaking for a quarter of a century.
After September 11, however, this, like so many things, changed.
Two weeks after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked,
I attended the dinner of CARAL.
The program included a marvelous jazz singer. She had changed her
repertoire, and before one number, pulled out the lyrics to a song,
and said to us, "Forgive me for needing the sheet, but it has
been many years since most of us sang all the verses to this song."
- America the Beautiful.
She helped me see the issue of reproductive choice in a much larger
context with those words, one I will struggle to express today.
In the wake of September 11 I think we all need to strive to see
ourselves, and our causes, in the broadest possible context - not
as strategies or tactics, but as deeper questions of values and identify
- who are we, what do we stand for, where have we come from, where
are we going?
September 11 has given us part of that new context, our challenge
today may seem clearer than ever before - however daunting.
The struggle which faces abortion rights advocates parallels and
in many ways is the challenge facing America.
America is under attack by terrorists - just as clinics have been
under attack by terrorists for years
My assistant now dons latex gloves before opening my mail - at some
abortion clinics, gloves have been routine precautions for some time
Anthrax, one of the weapons being used to attack America, has been
repeatedly threatened against abortion rights advocates.
And the roots of the terror are the same.
The seedbed of both the terrorism directed against advocates of reproductive
choice and that which brought down the world trade center is fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism, the view that there is only one truth, that this
truth has already been revealed, and that the only remaining task
is to organize all of society - family, church, and state - to implement
and enforce that vision of the truth.
Fundamentalism is the seedbed of both terrorisms.
Fundamentalisms have three elements in common. They emerge in the
context of orthodoxy, traditionalism - they are its dark offspring.
They arise at times of disruptive change. And they are empowered and
enforced by extreme patriarchy. Women are the first victims of fundamentalisms
in all religions. Women have been the first victims of Wahhabi Sunni
Islam is Saudi Arabian and under the Taliban. Women have been the
worst victims of Christian fundamentalism here in the United States.
So, it may seem, the challenge facing our movement and America are
symmetrical. We must withstand terrorism, and extirpate its seedbed,
And that, as we sit here today, seems like challenge enough - indeed,
it seems as if it may be beyond our capacity, some twenty seven years
after Roe v. Wade, even here in the United States, much less globally.
None of us, I suspect, have any great confidence that we know how
America and the world can deal with the repeated outbreaks of fundamentalism
arising from traditionalism and orthodoxy under the stress of change
- outbreaks that range in recent years from the churches of Alabama
to the synagogues of settler communities in Hebron, to mosques and
madrasas in Peshawar, and Hindu temples in Gujarat.
How do you answer someone who finds today's world so disturbing that
they commit their entire life, and perhaps sacrifice it, to the restoration
of the imagined reassurance of the social and moral and political
order of a previous century or even millennium?
I find this overwhelming, and frightening.
But if I take a deep enough breath to slow down my heart, lower my
anxiety level, and step back from my panic, things begin to look even
more complex, more intellectually difficult.
I believe that we are on the verge of a challenge which, while it
may nominally honor reproductive choice, will utterly devastate reproductive
In the Odyssey, Homer challenged his hero, Odysseus, with the task
of navigating a narrow channel between two perils. Here are the sorceress
Circe's words as she advises Odysseus:
"On the other side loom two enormous crags
One thrusts into the vaulting sky its jagged peak. . ..
And halfway up that cliffside stands a fog-bound cavern
gaping west towards Erebus, realm of death and darkness. . ..
Scylla lurks inside it - the yelping horror. . .
She has twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down and six long swaying
necks, a hideous head on each, each head barbed width a triple row
of fangs, thickset, packed tight - and armed to the hilt with black
"The other crag is lower - you will see Odysseus -
though both lie side-by-side an arrow-shot apart.
Atop it a great fig-tree rises, shaggy with leaves,
beneath it awesome Charybdis gulps the dark water down
Three times a day she vomits it up, three times she gulps it down
that terror! Don't be there when the whirlpool swallows down -"
Fundamentalism is the Scylla that has just taken 5000 American lives
in the World Trade Center, that has terrorized abortion advocates
for decades, that oppresses women in Afghanistan who try to teach
girls to read, and has assassinated leaders like Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak
Rabin, and Mahatma Gandhi. But we should remember from the Odyssey
that Scylla lies only an arrow shot from with Charybis; danger never
lies at one extreme only.
If fundamentalism is rooted in the belief that there is only one
revealed truth, the threat that stands on the other side of the narrow
channel humanity must navigate is nihilism - the belief that there
is no truth at all.
If fundamentalism is the dark offspring of tradition and orthodoxy,
nihilism is the equally dark offspring of pragmatism and relativism.
Pragmatism, plain old common sense elevated to a formal belief - argues
that actions can best be judged by the results they yield, not by
their formal moral content. And relativism, in its healthy forms,
is simply the recognition that there are a wide diversity of human
cultures and belief systems, and that it is at the least impossible
to determine which one is correct or divinely inspired. These are
the two American philosophical currents that run along-side, and in
competition with traditionalism and orthodoxy. But taken to the extreme,
they lead to the belief that there are no intrinsic moral principals
at all, that any outcome humans might choose is equally valid and
equally moral. It does not, of course, follow, from the belief that
there is no one fixed truth, that there are no falsehoods. And saying
that we should take responsibility for the results of our actions
doesn't automatically imply that the end justifies the means. But
in the dark and powerful currents of human history, these currents
have often led to exactly these results, just as orthodoxy and tradition
too often lead to fundamentalism.
And already, the outlines of the nihilist challenge to the abortion
rights movement can be discerned.
The current that threatens reproductive freedom with nihilism is
technological triumphalism, the belief that if something can be done
technologically, it will be done, and therefore, should be done -
the hyper-Promethean assertion that humanity is measured by its technological
prowess and boldness in using it.
If reproductive fundamentalism threatens women's control of their
bodies, reproductive nihilism challenges women's - and men's - control
of their souls. For the reproductive rights movement, it is reproductive
technology's winds which are howling in the rigging.
Let me begin with the present. It is now possible for couple's to
ascertain the sex of a fetus. That means that it is now possible for
families to choose the sex of their children, if they have access
to abortion. And, in a disturbingly large number of societies, that
is happening, and is happening, almost exclusively, by choosing boys
over girls. Patriarchal attitudes are already twisting the principal
of reproductive freedom to their purposes.
The legal codes in these societies may look like they guarantee reproductive
freedom - but the social reality is very different. We must face,
and acknowledge, the reality that in the face of discrimination and
human evil, even technologies which offer choice can be used to deny
choice. Just getting the government out of the bedroom is not enough.
Stopping there takes us right into the whirlpools.
It may seem comforting, in a narrow sense, to know that these particular
abuses are, as far as we know, quite uncommon here in the United States,
although we would probably be disturbed if we knew the entire pattern
- I suspect this happens, even here, more often than we care to admit.
But the deeper and more profound nihilistic threat to reproductive
freedom is only beginning to emerge, because the technologies that
underpin it are only beginning to mature, and it is emerging here,
in the United States, and in Europe, not in Asia or Africa or Latin
America. That threat is the use of reproductive technologies to first
select, and then engineer, children for a wide variety of physical,
mental and emotional traits. I am referring to the emerging scientific
endeavor that calls itself human genetic engineering, and which has
set itself the task of perfecting humanity by taking direct control
of the human genetic future.
This endeavor begins with some pragmatic, compassionate, humanitarian
possibilities. Detecting Down's syndrome, or other crippling genetic
defects, during a pregnancy, had made it possible for older women
to become pregnant and give birth safely and securely. That is a choice,
I suspect, that few in this room would wish to deny - and one that
we see as genuinely contributing to human freedom and welfare.
And we are, almost certainly, on the verge of therapies that will
enable us to intervene during a pregnancy and repair genetic damage
so that a child that would otherwise be born with a crippling disease
is borne healthy. This option, which the scientists call somatic therapy,
really poses no more complex ethical challenges than repairing a baby's
defective heart valve just after birth, except that it may well be
less intrusive and painful, and more effective.
But there a third layer of technologies, just emerging, and probably
further in the future, which seeks to repair or enhance not an individual,
but the individual's genetic material, and thereby to shape not only
one destiny, but that of an entire line, and eventually the entire
human race. These technologies, which scientists call germline therapy,
are being offered as promising an end to such diseases as Tay Sachs
syndrome, sickle cell anemia, Huntington's chorea and hemophilia which
are carried as
chromosomal defects. And, when applied for such purposes, the ethics
seems pretty straightforward. We would certainly urge pregnant women
to avoid a drug that might create such a defect - why not repair one
when we can, even though it first emerged genetically in a previous
But suddenly, as we approach the lip of the whirlpool, we find the
waters dragging us rapidly down. For the question of what constitutes
a defect is not one with a universal human answer. If Huntington's
chorea is clearly a defect, what of a child whose intelligence is
so low as to make independent living almost impossible? What of one
whose intelligence is simply slightly below the average? If parents
can choose the best possible education for their daughter, why not
engineer her genes for genius, once this is possible? If, for males
at least, tallness is statistically associated with success, why not
take my genes and make them "fitter"? While I don't normally
feel that being 5 6 /12 is a defect, it is a definite disadvantage
on a basketball court, or in a barroom brawl. Should my children,
who carry genes for shortness, be able to decide that having NBA potential
in the Pope family line would be pretty terrific?
It's likely that this will all be technologically possible in the
lifetimes of some in this room. Indeed, one version of these technologies,
cloning, may be possible very, very soon. We all know people, although
we probably wish we didn't, who are so narcissistic that you can easily
imagine them choosing to have children who were their genetic identikits.
And many of the scientists who are driving these technologies see
an even brighter future ahead:
Here are some selected quotes, from respectable scientists and policy
observers, on the potential of the new human genetic engineering:
"And the other thing, because no one has the guts to say it,
if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes,
why shouldn't we? What's wrong with it?? Evolution can be just damn
cruel, and to say that we've got a perfect genome and there's some
sanctity? I'd like to know where that idea comes from, because it's
James Watson, Nobel laureate and founding director of the Human Genome
"[M]any people love their retrievers and their sunny dispositions
around children and adults. Could people be chosen the same way? Would
it be so terrible to allow parents to at least aim for a certain type,
in the same way that great breeders? try to match a breed of dog to
the needs of a family?"
Gregory Pence, professor of philosophy in the Schools of Medicine
and Arts/Humanities at the University of Alabama.
[In the future?] "The GenRich-who account for 10 percent of
the American population-all carry synthetic genes? All aspects of
the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge
industry are controlled by members of the GenRich class? Naturals
work as low-paid service providers or as laborers? [Eventually] the
GenRich class and the Natural class will become? entirely separate
species with no ability to crossbreed, and with as much romantic interest
in each other as a current human would have for chimpanzee? But in
all cases, I will argue, the use of reprogenetic technologies is inevitable?
whether we like it or not, the global marketplace will reign supreme."
Lee Silver, professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton
[B]iotechnology will be able to accomplish what the radical ideologies
of the past, with their unbelievably crude techniques, were unable
to accomplish: to bring about a new type of human being?[W]ithin the
next couple of generations? we will have definitively finished human
History because we will have abolished human being as such. And then,
a new posthuman history will begin"
Francis Fukuyama professor of public policy at the Institute of Public
Policy at George Mason University
I do not think I need to explain why I do not believe that a species
that was responsible for the World Trade Center, or that uses reproductive
freedom to ensure that baby girls are not borne, cannot be trusted
with shaping its own genetic future. I do not think I need to explain
why I do not believe that such an engineered future constitutes any
true form of reproductive freedom.
But just as the soil of tradition harbors the weeds of fundamentalism,
American pragmatism and western relativism, have prepared the way
for this horrifying nihilistic endeavor.
And squarely in the middle of this debate will be the themes of reproductive
rights and reproductive freedom. In a direct sense this will not be
about abortion. Genetic screening will enable parents to identify
more of the characteristics of a fetus in utero, and will create more
opportunities to use an abortion as a response to a genetic defect,
or an undesired genetic characteristic - like being a girl.
But the real nihilistic threat to the autonomy of the human species
comes only with germline genetic technologies that will be implemented
in vitro, in test tubes, not in wombs.
But the argument of reproductive choices that has been the core of
the debate over abortion will be made in this new context, and I will
submit that the challenge your movement will face will be to recognize
that while freedom is impossible without choice, not all choices lead
If we take the position that everything that is technologically possible
should be legal, so long as parents freely choose the options, then
we will be sucked down into the non-human future outlined by the hyper-Prometheans
I just quoted. Those who choose an engineered human future are not
only choosing for themselves. They are not even choosing only for
their own offspring and germ lines. They are choosing for all of us
a world in which, for example, those who have not been engineered
will live side by side with those who have, and will mate and share
offspring with what will, in some sense, be another species. So the
choice of an engineered future for humanity can be made for all of
us by some of us. That means that freedom cannot be defined solely
as individual, parental choice.
Indeed, Scylla lies perilously close to Charybdis.
We will need to draw some lines, to say that some technologies simply
should not be used . . .. by anyone. We will need to put the government
in the laboratory, if not in the bedroom. We will need to deny the
validity of some choices, some means, while acknowledging the value
of the desires that might lead people to choose them. There is nothing
wrong with wanting a child with a higher IQ. But there may be something
wrong with cloning to get there.
Achieving such a recognition will not be easy. It will not be unanimous.
Not everyone in this room will find the same line the point that they,
personally, do not wish to cross. Not everyone will find the same
line where they are willing to say, "here is something that should
be made illegal." And the moral guideposts that have steered
us through the pro-choice debate will not help us. Indeed, our past
rough moral guideposts will probably make it harder to us to draw
any lines, and steer away from Charybdis.
And so it is, I fear, our task not just to row as hard as we can
to steer away from Scylla. We cannot mistake fundamentalism as the
only enemy, and take harbor as far from its fearsome heads as we can.
We must indeed find a path between Scylla and Charybdis, we must be
as vigilant for the whirlpools of nihilism and extreme instrumentalism
as we are for the Taliban or Operation Rescue. Freedom can be lost
on either hand.
But where do we steer? What is the compass point that lies between
Scylla and Charybdis, fundamentalism and nihilism? And what does it
tell us about the true definition of reproductive freedom?
I find that a very difficult question - In preparing these remarks
I hoped to find a clear vision of a course that would safely steer
between these two perils.
I got as far as identifying two compass points.
First, we must recognize, and acknowledge, that we are neither mountain
lions nor deer. We are neither herbivores nor carnivores - we are
a social species. We need to act together to be fully human. We need
communities. And we need to recognize that while there are some choices
that, at the end of the day, ought to be and must be made by individuals
or couples, there are other choices that must be made by communities.
Wisdom consists in understanding that there are both, and in debating
which fall into each category. Simply asserting that there is one
right way and that the government should convert all morality into
criminal law takes us into the maws of Scylla; but it is equally foolish
to deny that need for some moral principals to be reflected in law
if choices by some are not to deny freedom for all. There lie the
whirlpools of Charybdis.
My second guidepost is that the politics of this new set of questions
are going to look quite different than the issues we have wrestled
with in seeking to pursue reproductive choice. If we are seeking to
steer a course between two perils, we must seek the places where the
two currents mingle. We will need to draw not only on the wisdom of
pragmatism and relativism, which in general drive liberalism in America,
but also orthodoxy and tradition, which drive conservativism. We need
to recognize that while some of those who disagree with us on the
issue of abortion rights are fundamentalists, seeking to deny women
all meaningful reproductive choice, others are not. They simply draw
a different line than we do. They seek a world, as we all do, in which
reproductive choice can be exercised without the need for abortion
except as a rare expedient of last resort, for a pregnancy which has
become medically distressed.
These moderate opponents on a given vote in Congress, people like
House Minority Whip David Bonior, are going to be our allies in the
broader struggles to come.
By contrast, some who may agree with me on that same Congressional
vote, if driven by an extreme libertarianism, may disagree on the
need to prevent a genetically engineered human future, at least if
preventing that future requires government action and legal limit
setting, as it almost certainly does.
So I believe we will need in the coming debate to reach out to those
in communities of faith and tradition who disagree with us on abortion
legislation, but agree with us on deeper issues of human freedom and
But beyond these two guideposts, I sought some clearer pathway -
some easier way to define where I thought we should draw the line.
Exactly how do we steer our course between these two perils?
I failed. It is easy to reject the fundamentalisms of Operation Rescue
or the Taliban. It is easy to reject the extremism and nihilism of
the ubermensch project of Lee Silver. It is far more difficult to
define the path between.
And so it was for Odysseus. Indeed, he failed. Following Circe's
advice, he steered closer to Scylla, and lost six of his men to her
loathsome heads. "Better" she told him," To lose six
men, and keep your ship, than lose your entire crew."
And he did.
"Now Scylla snatched six men from our hollow ship
the toughest, strongest hands I had, and glancing
I could see their hands and feet already hoisted,
flailing high, higher, over my head -"
So if Odysseus failed, I can perhaps be pardoned for failing as well.
But, of course, it is not polite to end a speech with its conclusion
still dangling, the plot still unresolved, the listeners still waiting.
So, whether or not I really had found a solution, I had to find a
close. And I found a clue in the Odyssey itself.
In her first comments to Odysseus on his course, Circe told him,
"A choice of route is yours. I cannot advise you which to take,
or lead you through it all. You must decide yourself." And I
wondered, perhaps the nature of our path is precisely this - that
we cannot be told what to choose, what we must choose for ourselves,
and the task of choosing is never over. Perhaps that is the realm
of meaningful choice, of meaningful freedom. On the rocks of Scylla,
fundamentalism offers no meaningful choice, because there are no meaningful
questions - the answers have all been predetermined. In the whirlpool
of Charybdis, nihilism offers no meaningful choice, because there
are no meaningful answers - any answer will do, and the most brutally
powerful will prevail.
What is missing at both of the extremes is the sense that there are
hard questions, which have better, but still imperfect answers, and
that tragedy and loss and uncertainty are, unavoidably, a part of
Perhaps the pathway of meaning and freedom is defined by its acceptance
of that hard reality. All the great religious traditions teach that
humans are, first and foremost, the makers of meaningful moral choices.
And for the last thirty years your movement has stood for choice.
You have stood for freedom and choice against the ongoing onslaught
from fundamentalism. The power, and success, of your movement, have
been drawn from your willingness to defend that human capacity, and
that human duty - the capacity and duty to make individual choices.
And now you must, and I believe you can, rise to the challenge that
is arising from nihilism to reproductive freedom. For you, by striving
to steer that narrow course fraught with perils on both sides, have
accepted, more fully, your humanity. And while the course you must
steer is narrow, only on that course can all of our strength as a
species be bent to the oars.