A woman has a right not to bear a child, and a fetus has a right to be born. When these two rights are seen as being on a collision course, conflict is inevitable. Prestigious leaders representing religion and ethics, law, medicine, and the social sciences disputed, debated, and defended the world’s abortion practices during a three-day International Conference on Abortion held this month in Washington, D. C.

Although the conference, co-sponsored by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and Harvard Divinity School, appeared heavily loaded with Roman Catholic delegates, many participants favored the desires of the mother over the rights of the fetus. But quite a few, sometimes emotionally, equated abortion with genocide. Some called it murder.

There was little consensus beyond such broad affirmations as “human life deserves special respect,” and “abortion for mere personal convenience is contrary to the principle of the sanctity of life.” Suggestions to curb the “copulation explosion” ranged from “abortion on demand”—suspension of all abortion laws, thus making pregnancy termination a matter of the mother’s private judgment—to perfection of male sterilization methods to prevent unwanted children.

Safe and easily accessible do-it-yourself abortion pills may soon revolutionize society’s approach to abortion, however, and make the legal aspects largely irrelevant. Paul Ramsey, professor of religion at Princeton University, told the gathering that the “M” pill, which Swedish doctors are perfecting, will enable women to make their own decisions about whether to carry or miscarry after conception.

“This is soon going to become a question having nothing to do with the penal code, a practice wholly in the personal or private realm which ...

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