Legally, a pregnant woman can’t get an abortion in North America unless her life depends on it. The result: an estimated one million women yearly step outside the law and risk a felony charge (not to mention internal mutilation and even death) to rid themselves of an unwanted child.

But is it the women or the law that needs changing? Within recent months bills to revise abortion laws have popped up in at least fifteen legislatures.Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island; and Texas. The Canadian government is also proposing changes.

The debate over the issue has produced an open, often bitter, religious confrontation. Roman Catholics, with the solid backing of their church, oppose change. A number of prominent Protestants and Jews, mostly without such backing, give the revisions qualified support.

Generally the new proposals ask that abortion be legal if there is the possibility of “physical or mental” danger to the mother, if there is a chance that the child will be defective, or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest, as well as if the life of the mother is in danger—now the only legal reason for abortion.

Catholic opposition is based on the view that an unborn child is a human being from the moment of conception. Thus any act that wilfully ends that life is a violation of the sixth commandment and is equated with murder.

The Roman Catholic bishops of New York State put it flatly in a pastoral letter: “Laws which allow abortion violate the unborn child’s God-given right” to life. Carrying the point one step further, the bishops wrote that any liberalization of the law would invite a “new slaughter of innocents.” ...

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