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Choice, the Bar, and a Prelate Who Listens

THE decision by the American Bar Association last week to back away from abortion rights was disappointing. The ABA, convening in Chicago, rescinded a resolution passed earlier this year in support of the Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade, the foundation of abortion rights in the United States. The ABA thus replaced its official position of ``choice'' with one of ``neutrality.'' The association's House of Delegates voted 200 to 188 for the new position because, according to the resolution, questions related to abortion are ``extremely divisive,'' and the lawyers felt that for the good of the association, it should avoid taking a position.

Well, what about the body politic as a whole? Why should lawyers have it any easier than the rest of us?

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One can understand why individual lawyers, particularly male lawyers, might want to steer clear of this one. But it is still disappointing that a strong voice in favor of abortion rights has fallen silent.

And by the way, why isn't ``choice'' the neutral position, since it argues for keeping the state out of the difficult decisions of individual women? Terminology in this discussion comes fully loaded; one seeks the terms that have the least baggage. ``Pro-life'' would claim not just the high ground, but the whole ground. And ``pro-abortion'' simply doesn't define a public-policy position.

The truth is that most of us come down in the great big middle: We're pro-choice but anti-abortion. We're unhappy about the number of abortions performed, many of them on people who should know better. But we're unhappier still at the prospect of intrusion into a private decision - of the state having more jurisdiction over a woman's womb than over the trunk of her car.

Meanwhile, though, voices on the extremes are rising, accompanied by hardening of the rhetoric.

Which brings me to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert G. Weakland, who this past spring did something quite extraordinary for one in his position: He listened to a bunch of women.

Specifically, he held a series of six sessions for women in his archdiocese at which they were invited to express their views on abortion. He simply listened. A ``liberal'' who has voiced doubts about Vatican policies but still supports the position of his church against abortion and abortion rights, he nonetheless wanted to hear from women on both sides of the issue. Some of the insights shouldn't have been news to him; for instance, that none of the pro-choice women defended abortion as good in itself.

But he came away determined not to be so glib with phrases like ``moment of conception'' or to assume that giving a baby away for adoption is a simple thing. He found churchwomen emphasizing the connection between church teaching and actions, and a ``consistent ethic of life,'' which relates taking of life in abortion to taking of life in war.

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The archbishop's listening is surely in the Biblical spirit of ``Come now, and let us reason together.'' Absolute moral truths are not arrived at by consensus, nor are they subject to a majority vote. But policies of church or state can no longer simply be handed down from on high. As the archbishop told a reporter, ``It will be difficult to maintain the present style of authority in a world that is everywhere - and I really do mean everywhere - looking for more participatory structures.''

Of course, our own lives are important ``participatory structures'' in which we have the privilege of making our own moral decisions. Surely maturity includes having the courage to live one's own ideals oneself, rather than seeking to meddle in the choices of others.

And we need always to be alert to false choices. That is one of the lessons in the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. He rejected a false choice between stoning her and not stoning her. He took control of the discussion in a way that protected the life of the woman and the dignity of all involved.

In its much different, secular way, the United States Constitution similarly protects against false choices by carefully balancing rights and responsibilities, and by leaving some lines a little bit gray, to allow for evolving concepts of individual rights and the social contract. How unfortunate if the Constitution had enshrined the mores as well as the principles of the Founding Fathers.

Roe v. Wade limits no one's freedom to act responsibly or to conduct relationships with tenderness and restraint.

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