Research News


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Last week marked the 35th anniversary of the day the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision striking down most laws outlawing abortion. The case was Roe versus Wade, and in many ways, it seems as if the debate over abortion has never really ended.

Here in the nation's capital, thousands of people marched last Tuesday to, once again, call for an end to legalized abortion. And in the presidential contest, candidates are once again campaigning on the question of how firmly they support or oppose abortion rights.

And although the number of abortions being performed in this country has reached the lowest level in 32 years, at more than a million a year, abortion is still described as the most common minor surgery in the U.S. So we wondered how, so many years after Roe, women and their doctors are approaching the issue as a matter of medicine, of personal choice and of conscience.

In a moment, we have one woman's story. We're not suggesting she represents any point of view but her own, but we think it's important to hear an individual perspective.

But first, joining us now with two different views from the medical profession are Dr. Robert Williams. He's a physician at Howard University here in Washington, D.C., an associate professor of community and family medicine. We're also joined by David Solomon. He is director of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, and he joins us from his office. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.


DAVID SOLOMON: Good to be here.

MARTIN: Dr. Williams, if you would start. What's your personal take on abortion rights, and what informs that view?

WILLIAMS: I do support it, and I think that as we look back from the time of that decision to now, we still see a large number of abortions being done because it affects all women of all social strata. About one-half of women have unintended pregnancies and then about - if you project that out to about age 45 - about one in one-third of women will have had an abortion. And so it's a very necessary aspect of reproductive rights, if you will, as expressed by the woman. I do think that we should have more emphasis placed on contraception and prevention, particularly by having some changes in our funding mechanisms - Medicaid, particularly.

MARTIN: I want to ask you, though, as a doctor, most people understand that the role of the doctor is to preserve and defend life. So there are those who wonder how a person, whose job is to preserve and defend life, can support abortion, which is, for many people, the taking of a life.

WILLIAMS: That can be the opinion. And, of course, this is a controversial issue. The fact of the matter is that I assume most doctors are not in the business of performing the procedures, but they defend the right of individual patients to have this abortion if they so choose.

MARTIN: Professor Solomon, you're not a medical doctor, but you are a person who teaches med students. You teach medical ethics. The same question to you: What's your personal take on abortion rights and what informs your view?

SOLOMON: My take is that the Roe decision, in a kind of broadly undemocratic way, brought about a moral revolution in this country without the opportunity for the democratic citizenry to debate the issues. And the underlying moral issues here are issues about - as they've always been - about killing and the dignity of every human being, a value that's very dear to all of us who live in a liberal democracy.

So the - Dr. Williams rightly emphasizes the empowerment arguments connected to Roe, that we empowered women in a certain sort of way. But the decision also involves exclusionary arguments, that is, we excluded certain people from the moral community - the unborn. So this is the larger moral framework with regard to the overall question of abortion.

MARTIN: Dr. Williams?

WILLIAMS: If you project that to about age 45, one-third of women will have had an abortion. And generally, these are women who are - have already had children and they are thinking that they cannot afford, for whatever reason, to have another child. Many of these individuals are disadvantaged. They're poor and a significant number of them minority status.

MARTIN: But, Mr. Solomon, let's address that question. How do you teach this issue or discuss this issue, considering what Dr. Williams just said, that many of the women who have abortions do so because they think - or at least they say that they're doing this in order to better take care of the children they already have?

SOLOMON: Well, I think the way we address it on the moral level is that we have here deep conflicts about what's required of us in respecting the dignity of every person, the non-negotiable and inalienable right of each person to continue living. The right to life has always been thought of as not the only right that people have, but in some sense, the most fundamental right. That is what Pope John Paul II always emphasized was unless we respect the dignity of each person, especially the weakest and most needy of people, then our other kinds of attention paid to other justice issues will sort of fall by the wayside.

MARTIN: Dr. Williams, how do you teach this issue? Also noting that the fact that some phenomenon may be common in a society does not speak to its ultimate morality. And African-Americans certainly - you're at an historically black institution. African-Americans perhaps know this better than most, given that it was common to hold African-Americans in bondage. But it was in no way morally right. So how do you address this question?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think the ethical questions are definitely there, as Professor Solomon has just indicated. But, you know, you have another ethical principle, and that is of autonomy. And that is the right of an individual - an individual woman to make a decision regarding her own reproductive capacity. And autonomy means self-determination and such. And the law is on the side of that principle. Other principles, of course, that we teach are beneficence. That is to do good and not to do harm. And then you always have the aspect of justice. You see what is fair. And in this society, it is not fair for the women who are well-off of all religious affiliations allowed to get an abortion and the people who at the lower socio-economic strata and educational levels are denied that because they don't have the funds. It's a matter of economics, in large part.

MARTIN: Why do you think, Dr. Williams, that African-American women are nearly five times more likely than white women to have abortions? The decline, as we've pointed out, is pretty - distributed pretty evenly among blacks, whites and Latinos. But African-Americans are still far more likely to have this procedure than whites. Why do you think that is?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's another instance of disparity, if you will. If you take the lower education level and you take poverty. You could take a single women - she has a different life circumstance than women who are at a higher strata in the society. And so she should have the same opportunity in this area to terminate a pregnancy under the law as her counterparts.

MARTIN: Professor Solomon, why do you think that racial disparity exists? Do you have any idea?

SOLOMON: You know, right after Roe, we did a little book here at Notre Dame in which we commissioned the Gallup Poll. And we - about attitudes toward the moral issues. And we discovered that poor African-American women were the social - the class in this country most opposed to abortion on visceral kind of grounds. And upper-class, rich, white men were the economic group both most in favor of it. That seems to me that African-American women had a kind of instinctive grasp of the importance of family and obligations there, which they still do. And it's significant, I think, that Jesse Jackson, in the 1970s, was deeply opposed to the abortion regime that came out of Roe and regarded this as kind of a racist assault on African-American women. I'd still...

MARTIN: Well, there are a number of public figures who seem to have changed their minds on this point over the years, in both directions - presidential candidate Mitt Romney being one who seems to have moved in the other direction. But we're down to our last couple of minutes. I'd like to ask both of you. Professor Solomon, you alluded to this, that this debate is ongoing and it doesn't seem to - that the level of disagreement doesn't seem to have changed over the years. Do you ever envision, in our lifetimes, the two sides reconciling?

SOLOMON: You know, I think it's going to be very difficult. It's not only that we still disagree. But the more we talk about it, the deeper the disagreements come to be. And I think that's partly because we have here simply a question of either you see the unborn child as someone with dignity be protected or you don't. And all the arguments about autonomy and empowerment don't get to that issue. If the fetus is one of us, as someone endowed with dignity and rights, then it's going to be wrong to empower people to destroy it.

MARTIN: Dr. Williams?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that we must continue to try to find a compromise, if you would. I do think we need to not to head toward a two-tiered system that we presently have, where the rich and the well-off can have this service. And they do take advantage of it. And then the poor are cut out from this service, if you would, to determine their own destinies in their reproductive lives.

MARTIN: Dr. Robert Williams is an associate professor of family and community medicine at Howard University. He was kind enough to join us here in the studio in Washington. We were also pleased to be joined by David Solomon. He is the director of the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Michel.

SOLOMON: Thank you, Michel.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from