Punching the air: Explaining opposition to banning “partial birth abortions”

May 25, 1998

By Polly Rothstein

Opposing a ban on so-called “partial birth abortion” (PBA) is like arguing about a giant winged dragon: the dragon doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, people believe “partial birth abortion” exists and occurs late in pregnancy and should be outlawed. But “partial birth abortion” is not an abortion method; it is a political bludgeon to inflict damage on women, abortion rights, and pro-choice legislators.

!!Abortions are illegal after 24 weeks in most states, including NY, except to save the woman’s life. NO abortions after 24 weeks were performed outside of NYC in 1996, according to the latest correct figures from the NYS Dept of Health. (NYC Dept of Health does not review cases, so its figure are unknown. Further, as standard medical practice, if a woman’s health is jeopardized late in pregnancy, doctors attempt to deliver a healthy baby.

What the bill says – and doesn’t say:

Anti-abortion leaders made up the term “partial birth abortion.” The bills passed by Congress and the NY Senate simply define PBA as when the “person performing the abortion partially vaginally delivers a living fetus before killing the fetus and completing the delivery.” That’s all there is to the bill: NO definition of “partially delivers” or “delivery;” NO mention of trimesters, duration of pregnancy, or fetal viability; NO guidelines for implementation, and NO exceptions for the woman’s health. “Delivery” is misused in order to deceive. The remaining wording in the bill sets out criminal penalties.

The bill may be unclear, but its fiery rhetoric is specific, untrue, and widely believed. Abortion foes claim the doctor extracts the body of a fully developed fetus, pokes scissors in the nape and suctions out the brain. They say PBA even occurs during birth, and call it “infanticide” and “murder.” The Conservative Party dishonestly repeats the mantra that “a full-term fetus is killed after being partially delivered by its mother” and uses the term “nearly born” fetuses. The term “late-term abortions” is also inaccurate. There is no phrase or word that pro-choice people can use to refer to this fictitious procedure.

It’s important to understand that during the second trimester, the cervix is still thick and firm in order to retain the pregnancy, and does not easily dilate. It is understood that in all methods of abortion between 18 and 24 weeks, doctors avoid tearing the cervix by reducing the size of the fetal skull.

Proponents assert that this bill merely bans one brutal method of abortions late in pregnancy. In fact, it is so vaguely worded and so broad that it confuses everyone – doctors, the press, and politicians. The threat of prosecution would deter doctors from performing D&E, the most common procedure used in the second trimester, and many legal experts believe it would apply to first trimester abortions as well. Both occur before viability, which typically begins at 24-28 weeks.

The bombast has deceived some of the public and the media, but not the courts. The courts across the country that have considered similar state bans have prohibited enforcement, finding them unconstitutional because they are too vague and they violate women’s constitutional right to privacy. PBA laws are not about “late-term” abortions; they are a direct attack on Roe v. Wade and if upheld by the Supreme Court, Roe will have been overturned.

Despite incredible distortions, political pressure to outlaw so-called “partial birth abortions” is intense. The NYS Conservative Party says it won’t endorse candidates who refuse to support the ban. Pro-choice legislators are harassed by anti-abortion religious groups and will face a blitz of grisly ads against them at election time. Those who stand up to this relentless political pressure deserve pro-choice support.

The good news: No member of Congress who voted against the “Partial Birth Abortion Act” was defeated in 1996.


Q: If there are no abortions after 24 weeks anyway, why not just let the PBA ban pass?

A: This law would put a chill on all D&E procedures. Standing idly by is foolish, and anyway would set a lamentable precedent. Pro-choice advocates must dispute the fraudulent pictures and descriptions because they increase opposition to abortion and lead to making all abortions a crime (which is the real goal.)

Q: I saw pictures of PBA and it’s so abhorrent it should be outlawed.

A1: The issue is a fraud. The diagrams are produced by Right to Life to depict a procedure they want you to believe is used to abort healthy fetuses in the final weeks of pregnancy.

A2: Respond with questions:

  • Did you know that abortions on viable fetuses are illegal?
  • How many abortions after 24 weeks do you think were done in NYS in 1996? You can enjoy surprising them with ZERO!
  • How many healthy women do you know who sought abortions in the last months of pregnancy?
  • Have you read the bill?

Q: Why are you for PBAs?

A: Nothing in medicine is known as “partial birth abortion.” I cannot favor a fake procedure invented by anti-choice forces.

A1: Medical decisions belong to doctors and patients. No one wants legislators dictating medical treatment or deterring their doctors from doing their best for them.

A2: I expect to be attacked at election time, but it’s worse to harm patients and threaten all abortion rights.

Q: Does the fetus feel pain?

A: Medical researchers and medical literature say that the pathways in the brain that permit the sensation of pain develop after 30 weeks.

Q: What do obstetricians say about PBA?

A: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) said, “The intervention of legislative bodies into medical decision making is inappropriate, ill-advised, and dangerous.”