The myths vs. the reality of partial-birth abortion

October 07, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to forbid veterinarians from putting animals to death by a method that requires jamming scissors through the skull and then suctioning out the brains. No one objected.

What? Sorry, I got that wrong. It was not dogs and cats that were being put to death this way. It was human fetuses. So you won't be surprised to learn that when the House voted to forbid doctors from using this method, plenty of people objected. NARAL Pro-Choice America is one of the groups opposing the bill, calling it part of an effort to take away the "freedom to choose."

"Partial-birth abortion" has been a forgotten subject since 2000, when the Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law banning the procedure. But even in a nation where most people favor keeping abortion available, the public is affronted when it takes especially cruel and grotesque forms. So congressional opponents of the procedure have tried to fashion a new version of the ban that could meet the court's objections.

FOR THE RECORD - The Oct. 5 column misstated the number of "partial-birth" abortions reportedly performed each year at a New Jersey facility. It is at least 1,500, not 3,000.

The court complained that the Nebraska law was so vague that doctors couldn't know in advance if they were breaking the law. So this bill takes pains to be as clear and specific as humanly possible. It affects any abortion in which the physician "intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until ... the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or ... any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother" and then kills it.

What's so terrible about that type of abortion? As the American Medical Association has acknowledged, it's different from others because the fetus is, um, "killed outside the womb." Once a fetus is entirely or partly out of the womb, it can't be regarded as just a part of the mother's body anymore. It's an independent being, with separate interests that deserve protection.

Critics of the measure have been busy resurrecting old claims that have long been discredited. They say this form of abortion is extremely rare. But when the controversy first emerged a few years ago, one New Jersey facility acknowledged doing some 3,000 a year.

They say it's used only when the fetus is terribly defective or the mother's health is in serious danger. But the National Coalition of Abortion Providers says the vast majority of these abortions are performed on healthy mothers and healthy fetuses.

Opponents of the ban say this procedure is an essential option for women and their doctors. The American Medical Association, however, notes, "There does not appear to be any identified situation in which [it] is the only appropriate procedure."

Opponents also say the government should not override the judgment of a trained physician. Would they say that about Jack Kevorkian? Would they say that about a doctor who agreed to perform "female circumcision" on an immigrant girl whose parents requested it, in keeping with native customs? The government routinely overrules the judgment of doctors who would like to prescribe drugs that aren't approved for use.

Abortion-rights advocates say that many supporters of the ban would like to prohibit almost all abortions. That's not the case for senators such as Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas - all of whom want to keep abortion legal and all of whom voted to ban this procedure. Nor is it the case for Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who has voted to uphold both the 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade and the Nebraska ban on partial-birth abortion. He noted that no studies proved it safer than other methods, and said the government may ban what he called "a procedure many decent and civilized people find so abhorrent."

It's true that many and possibly even most supporters of the bill would like to outlaw abortion except in the most extreme cases. That's no argument for allowing this particular method. Radical animal rights groups favor laws against cruelty to animals, but you can support anti-cruelty laws without endorsing a ban on eating meat.

Even people who favor a broad right to abortion may think this type comes uncomfortably close to something no one should want. As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, an abortion-rights supporter, put it, "It is infanticide, and one would be too many."

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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