WASHINGTON (April 18, 2007) — The U.S. Supreme Court today rejected a legal challenge to the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, allowing the law to go into effect for the first time since it was signed by President George W. Bush in 2003.
“Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and their allies blocked this law for 12 years — but finally, it is illegal in America to mostly deliver a premature infant before puncturing her skull and removing her brain, which is what a partial-birth abortion is,” commented Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).
Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The Act proscribes a method of abortion in which a fetus is killed just inches before completion of the birth process. . . Congress determined that the abortion methods it proscribed had a ‘disturbing similarity to the killing of a newborn infant.’ . . .” The majority ruled that a general ban on the method is permissible and does not violate the general “abortion right” enunciated in past decisions such as Roe v. Wade (1973) and Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992).
NRLC, the nation’s major right-to-life organization, led the coalition that resulted in enactment of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003, after an eight-year fight. President Bill Clinton vetoed the ban twice. When it passed the Senate in 2003, it was over the nay vote of Senator Hillary Clinton.
WHAT THE LAW DOES
The federal law bans “partial-birth abortion,” a legal term of art, defined in the law itself as any abortion in which the baby is delivered feet-first “past the [baby’s] navel . . . outside the body of the mother,” or “in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother,” before being killed. The complete official text of the law, in a searchable format, is here.
In recent months, some commentators, including Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times and Kenneth Jost ofCongressional Quarterly, have argued that the term “partial-birth” is misleading because the method is usually used months before the end of a full-term pregnancy. (It is most often used in the fifth and sixth months, but sometimes later.) These objections rest on a baffling failure to recognize that legal “live births” commonly occur long before full term — indeed, “live births” are commonplace even early in the fifth month of pregnancy. Legally, under the laws of virtually every state and under federal law, once a human is entirely outside the mother and draws breath, or shows other signs of life such as heartbeat or movement of voluntary muscles, a live birth has occurred, and all the protections of law attach — whether or not the baby is “viable” (capable of long-term survival). At the stages of development at which most partial-birth abortions are performed, the great majority of babies would be legal “live births” if they were expelled by spontaneous premature labor, and many would be long-term survivors. For further discussion of the relationship between the legal definition of “live birth” and the legal definition of “partial-birth,” click here.
In February 1997, Ron Fitzsimmons, the executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, told the New York Times that “in the vast majority of cases” the method is used on “a healthy mother with a healthy fetus that is 20 weeks or more along” (New York Times, Feb. 26, 1997). Twenty weeks is halfway through a full-term pregnancy — the middle of the fifth month.
The NRLC website contains the Internet’s most expansive archive of documents pertaining to all facets of the debate over partial-birth abortion, here.
Any journalist or editorialist examining the issue of partial-birth abortion will benefit from reading “Partial-Birth Abortion: Misconceptions and Realities,” a memo written by NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson. This memo addresses common misconceptions and misinformation about partial-birth abortion, with links to primary documents, including interviews with partial-birth abortionists and investigative reports in American Medical News, the New York Times, PBS, and other news media. The memo addresses these topics: the actual language and legal intent of the bill; why “partial-birth abortion” is a necessary and appropriate legal term of art that fits into the framework of existing law regarding what constitutes a “live birth”; how the media’s use of the nebulous label “late-term abortion” distorts the debate over the law; whether President Bush’s statement (November 5, 2003) that partial-birth abortion is violence directed against those who are “inches from birth” is medically and legally accurate; and polls of doctors, obstetricians, nurses, and the general public regarding the ban.
The memo also discusses how documented medical illustrations of two different abortion methods can allow the public to better evaluate claims and counterclaims on what the law actually covers and does not cover.
A collection of key documents (some of them real eye-openers) pertinent to various medical claims surrounding partial-birth abortion are posted here.
During the summer of 2004, U.S. District Judge Richard Casey presided over a trial in New York in one of the three legal challenges to the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (National Abortion Federation v. Gonzales), during which he directly questioned a number of abortionists regarding how partial-birth abortions are performed. Attorney Cathy Cleaver Ruse’s distillation of that revealing testimony, published in the Spring 2005 issue of theHuman Life Review under the title “Partial-Birth Abortion on Trial,” is posted in PDF format here.