Partial-birth abortion: Who lied?

March 06, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Boy, do we hate being lied to. If you want to see the "pack mentality" of journalists in full operation, lie to one of us, sit back and wait for the howl.

This sound wave broke over Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, when he admitted that he had "lied through my teeth" about so-called partial-birth abortions.

He had said -- through his teeth -- that only a few hundred such procedures were performed a year when he knew there were several thousand. He had said they were performed only on deformed fetuses or endangered women, when he knew they were performed on healthy fetuses and healthy women.

Now, I have never spoken to Mr. Fitzsimmons. Indeed one of the bizarre footnotes to his confession is that his lie to ABC never made it on the air. But he sent me scurrying through the history of the conflict.

Did anybody, everybody, lie? Well, let's say that in the long dance of disinformation, there was a whole lot of spinning going on.

The spin cycle began when the term "partial-birth abortion" was invented by a savvy pro-life wordsmith to describe intact dilation and evacuation. It went public in 1995 when pro-life members of Congress introduced drawings of full-term babies being aborted.

The message was that droves of women carried their pregnancies up to the due date and then decided on abortion rather than childbirth. Indeed, at one point, an ad by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops implied that a woman would choose this procedure to fit into her prom dress.

The pro-choice folks then countered with their most sympathetic scenario. They brought forth women with wanted pregnancies who faced horrific choices in the third trimester.

'Late' or 'third-trimester'?

Somewhere in this spin cycle, the difference between "late" abortions and third-term abortions was, willfully or not, as tangled up as a pair of socks. Especially in the public mind.

But long before Mr. Fitzsimmons' confession, the facts became more visible.

Fact One: There are about 450 intact D&Es done annually in the third trimester, when they are only permitted by law to protect the life and health of the mother. Fact Two: There are estimated to be several thousand done "late" in the second trimester, between 20 and 24 weeks, when abortion is a legal right. Fact Three: "Partial-birth abortion" is gruesome but no more so than the alternatives.

When all is said and recanted, this debate is not really about numbers. Nor is it about one abortion procedure versus another.

This partial-truth abortion debate comes out of our deep discomfort about abortion, especially "late" second-term abortions. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the more developed a fetus, the greater its claim. That absolutely matches the common moral sensibility.

Even Kate Michelman of NARAL shares that discomfort. "If the problem is late second-trimester procedures, we need to . . . figure out what conditions cause women to have abortions after 20 weeks."

Some are women who had to wait for genetic tests, like amniocentesis. Some are teen-agers who didn't know or refused to acknowledge their pregnancy. Some faced the obstacles of money or of distance from a shrinking number of clinics.

If I could make a trade-off that would limit late second-trimester abortions for healthy women with healthy fetuses in return for freely and widely available abortion in the first trimester, I would be tempted.

But since we're talking about deals, the best trade-off is to limit abortion by limiting unintended pregnancies. That's such a universal belief, it sounds like a cliche.

Or is it universal?

Remember last month, when the FDA backed the morning-after pill, saying the emergency contraceptive could make a serious dent in the yearly count of 2.3 million unintended pregnancies and 1 million abortions? Did the pro-life forces offer a chorus of hurrahs? Not exactly. The American Life League and others were on the air talking about this, too, as the "murder" of "unborn children."

Anybody want to take this one out for a spin?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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