This past Friday, the Senate fell just three votes short of overriding Clinton’s veto of a ban on “partial birth abortion.” The vote seemed to be largely for grandstanding purposes, timed as it was to coincide with the Christian Coalition’s annual meeting in D.C., and the senators split the same way they had the last time the issue came up. But, with the elections coming and our prochoice president on the ropes, that slim margin may soon be obliterated. In that case, the antichoice lobby will have succeeded in the seemingly impossible: outlawing a procedure that doesn’t exist.
Three years back, nobody had heard of “partial birth abortion.” That’s not because it’s a little known practice or because abortion opponents have unearthed some dark medical secret. It’s because the whole thing is a fiction–a hyped-up, nightmarish distortion of a medical procedure, a vision so repellent no one dares question it.
According to the bill, the phrase means “an abortion in which the person performing the abortion partially vaginally delivers a living fetus before killing the fetus and completing the delivery.” On the strength of the horrific language, 28 states have passed such bans so far.
But doctors who actually perform abortions don’t recognize the term. You won’t find it in any medical dictionary. It’s not explained in medical textbooks. “Partial birth abortion” just didn’t exist before abortion opponents hatched the idea in 1995.
Most judges have seen this stomach-turning bluster for what it is. Only two state bans have so far survived the legal challenges brought by prochoice advocates. As U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Payne put it in his decision to block Virginia’s ban, “partial birth abortion is a term coined by legislators, anti-abortion activists, and the media. It has no medical meaning.” To allow a ban of such a vaguely defined practice, he went on, would threaten the more general right to abortion.
No doubt, many backers of the national proposal would prefer to ban abortion altogether. Instead, the bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Rick Santorum, and others, always in outraged tones, offer up quasitechnical definitions of “partial birth abortion” that involve gruesome details like crushing and emptying the fetal skull.
If an actual medical procedure is buried within such inflammatory language–and experts say the description does loosely correspond to a technique doctors call intact dilation and extraction–the resemblance is vague. But supporters of a partial-birth law wouldn’t have it any other way. The medical fuzziness allows abortion opponents to extend the discomfort and confusion over the supposed practice to abortion in general.
And, though the details of an appendectomy may seem equally revolting, the gross-out factor has allowed antichoice activists to seize the high ground. Already, the “partial birth” debate has done a fantastic job of shifting the moral terrain, casting doctors who provide abortions as medical maniacs, surpassed in their freakish sadism only by the women who seek them. (Interestingly, as reported in The New Yorker, the wife of Senator Santorum herself had a problem pregnancy that could have required a late-stage abortion that would be outlawed by the ban. She managed to escape the procedure–and the moral censure that seems to be reserved for women who need it–because she ended up delivering the baby, which died two hours later, on her own.)
The “partial birth” firestorm has also muddied a longstanding consensus about the right to abortion during various stages of pregnancy. Roe v. Wade grants the right to abortion before viability, during the first two-thirds of pregnancy. The ban, however, could potentially apply throughout pregnancy. So even those abortions performed during what is thought to be a constitutionally protected period would become illegal.
At the same time, by not specifying the stage of pregnancy, supporters of a partial-birth ban–who have made much of the murdering-the-near-full-term-baby scenario–have successfully glossed over the fact that in most states abortions after viability are already limited to cases in which they could save the life or health of the mother.
In practice, the law’s vagueness makes it virtually impossible to administer. In Wisconsin, doctors stopped providing abortions altogether when a “partial birth” ban first went into effect. (The law, which assigned a punishment of life imprisonment, has since been enjoined.) In order to allow women access to other types of abortion, the state’s attorney general promised doctors not to prosecute them according to the letter of the law.
Whether or not a federal ban ultimately makes it into the books–and ends up facing questions of enforcement–the “partial birth” strategy has clearly been a success. The object of the ongoing exercise in political grandstanding has been to divide the prochoice majority and pave the way for a tidal wave of other antichoice initiatives. And it’s working. More than 50 antichoice bills have passed on the state level since January. And antiabortion legislation is also coming fast and furious on the federal level (see below), with Congress voting to restrict choice 97 times since the whole partial-birth controversy was first manufactured.
Happy anniversary, Roe!
In the past year, hundreds of restrictions on abortion have been proposed on federal and state levels. Here are just a few of the antiabortion efforts carried by the momentum of the “partial birth” charade:
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 29, 1998