The Partial Birth Abortion Act is a Fraud

by Polly Rothstein

Actually, there is no such thing as partial birth abortion. It’s a fraud.

Abortion foes, including the Catholic Church, the Christian Coalition, Right to Life, and the Republican and Conservative Party leadership, have created a false but potent issue: outlawing partial birth abortions. They claim to target one procedure, but that’s a smokescreen; they have invested vast resources in a disinformation campaign to criminalize a whole range of medically safe abortion procedures. Their most powerful weapon is the inflammatory name itself.

Even doctors don’t know what partial birth abortion is. The Partial Birth Abortion Act criminalizes any abortion procedure in which some part of a living fetus, comes through the cervix. But the intentionally vague language (the definition section is omitted) might apply to tissue that’s extracted in first and second trimesters, before viability, in abortions that are protected under Roe v. Wade.

The bill seems to point to the Intact D&E procedure, but it clearly doesn’t end there. This legislation would compel doctors to ensure that no living tissue is involved, therefore use a less desirable method. Some of the other procedures may impose unnecessary risks to the woman and jeopardize her future childbearing, but not violate the proposed law. One example of a less desirable procedure is hysterotomy (an incision into the uterine wall), which is major abdominal surgery and requires future deliveries to be Caesarean sections. (And remember, childbirth is riskier than abortion.)

In seeking to criminalize all abortions, the groups who promote this bill both federal and state versions are moving toward that goal. They use gruesome descriptions and shocking cartoons to imply that abortions are done for minor reasons, just moments from birth, when the fully developed healthy fetus is in the birth canal. This is a blatant deception. Right to Life pamphlets and statements by church spokespersons have led the public to believe that partial birth abortion is commonly done. They have legitimized the fraud by legislating against it: There is a bill to ban it, therefore it must exist.

Despite the publicity, this bill is not about third trimester abortions, which are already illegal in every state except to save the woman’s life or health, and are virtually never done. They occur only when abnormalities are so grave that the fetus could not survive and maintaining the pregnancy would be harmful. When a life-threatening condition, such as eclampsia or toxemia, threatens a woman’s life, her doctor may interrupt the pregnancy but make every effort to deliver a healthy baby. Such cases are always reviewed by hospital medical committees. Both mother and baby may end up in intensive-care units.

If the bill is a fraud, why do we care? Because the law would jeopardize women’s lives. The bill is intentionally vague and so incomprehensible that it confuses everyone – doctors, voters, the media, and legislators. The incendiary materials and op-ed articles produced by Right to Life and the Catholic Church, and the bishops’ heavy-handed lobbying, have made outlawing partial birth abortion a major issue – regardless of whether it is done and regardless of what its ban would mean to women and the practice of medicine. And the rhetoric doesn’t jibe with the bill. In sum, what opponents claim to be outlawing is never done; what they actually want to outlaw is common and would hurt millions of American women.

This nefarious bill has two main objectives: First, to make doctors fear criminal prosecution to the extent they fear performing any abortions; and second, to make voters reject President Clinton, who vetoed the bill, and any candidate who opposes it. Also, it increases public opposition to all abortions and provides a case to challenge Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court.

Doctors base medical decisions regarding abortion, as all procedures, on safety, effectiveness, and efficiency. The choices vary with each patient: her anatomy, any pre-existing conditions, and the duration of the pregnancy. Doctors must be free to make these decisions according to what is best for each patient – not according to a one-size-fits-all law passed by legislators who know nothing about the complexities of pregnancy. It would be wrong to handicap doctors who may have to make quick decisions under emergency conditions.

This bill is a moral abomination. Women who may be ill or whose pregnancies are incompatible with life have become political pawns. Voters should praise President Clinton for his moral courage in vetoing this law, and hold accountable legislators who support it.