A partial-birth by any other name . . .

By David Reinhard


Editor's note. The following first appeared October 26 in the Oregonian in a slightly different form and is reprinted with the author's permission.

Oh, don't call it partial-birth abortion. Heaven forbid, don't call it partial-birth abortion without wrapping the phrase in quotation marks as in "what critics call 'partial-birth abortion.' "

Never mind that Congress has just passed for the third time a partial-birth abortion ban with bipartisan majorities that included pro-choice and pro-life lawmakers. Never mind that a president will soon sign a ban that 70 percent of the public favors. Never mind that partial-birth abortion describes perfectly what happens when an abortionist partially extracts a live fetus from the womb, pierces its skull and sucks out the brains.

No, the act that Congress and President Bush would ban is "a late-term abortion." It's "a type of late-middle and late-term abortion." It's a "type of abortion." It's "an abortion procedure" or "a certain abortion procedure." It is, you see, "a procedure doctors call 'intact dilation and extraction.' "

It all sounds so medical, so professional - - so, well, antiseptic. And it all fits so well with the argument critics of the partial-birth abortion ban resorted to in their bitter end: Lawmakers shouldn't meddle in medical decisions or outlaw medical procedures.

Alas, it's the only argument partial-birth backers had left. All other claims they made over the past years proved bogus. Partial-birth abortion is an rare, late-stage emergency procedure and done only when the life of the mother was at risk or the baby damaged. The media - - the Washington Post, PBS and the Bergen Record - - and the statements of partial-birth pioneers themselves made plain the falsity of these claims. The live baby feels no pain in the procedure. The professional societies of anesthesiologists and medical experts debunked the no-pain claims.

In 1997, the head of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers admitted "the party line" was all bunk. Ron Fitzsimmons said he "lied through my teeth," and told the New York Times that "in the vast majority of cases, the procedure is performed on a healthy mother with a healthy fetus that is 20 weeks or more along."

In the end, partial-birth ban foes - - the certifiable extremists in this round of abortion politics - - could only argue that politicians should butt out and leave decisions about this medical "procedure" up to doctors. ...

Partial-birth abortion even has grand medical names such as "intact dilation and extraction" and "dilation and evacuation." ...But it turns out that the fancy terms were coined by the very doctors who popularized the procedure. They weren't even in the medical lexicon when partial-birth bans were first introduced in 1995.

And they are not now, nor have they ever been, medically necessary.

That's the judgment of the Physicians' Ad Hoc Coalition for Truth, a group of some 600 physicians specializing in obstetrics and related fields. ("Partial-birth abortion is never medically necessary to protect a mother's health or future fertility. On the contrary, this procedure . . . can pose a significant threat to both her immediate health and future fertility.") That's the judgment of the American Medical Association, which said in 1997 that partial-birth abortion is "not medically indicated" and "a procedure we all agree is not good medicine."

Why should we allow doctors to perform the kind of repugnant act - - an act whose horror offends the moral sentiments of pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike - - that is "never medically necessary"? Surely if Dr. Jekyll is on call for Marcus Welby, lawmakers should stop the barbarism. Or have we subcontracted our nation's moral sense to a subset of ghoulish doctors?

And does our Constitution require that abortionists be free to practice this uncalled for abomination? If the Supreme Court ultimately says so and strikes down this partial-birth abortion ban, only the words that begin each court session will make sense: God save this honorable court.

David Reinhard is associate editor for the Oregonian.