For what reasons are partial-birth abortions usually performed?

Some opponents of HR 1833, such as NARAL and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), have persistently disseminated claims that the partial-birth abortion procedure is employed only in cases involving extraordinary threats to the mother or grave fetal disorders. For example, NARAL President Kate Michelman wrote in a Scripps Howard News Service op ed published June 16, 1996, "Late-term abortions are only used under the most compelling of circumstances-- to protect a woman's health or life or because of grave fetal abnormality....nearly all abortions are performed in the first trimester." PPFA said in a press release that the partial-birth abortion procedure is "done only in cases when the woman's life is in danger or in cases of extreme fetal abnormality." (Nov. 1, 1995)

However, claims such as these are inconsistent with the writings and recorded statements of the three doctors who are most closely identified with the procedure: Dr. Martin Haskell, Dr. James McMahon, and Dr. David Grundmann.

Reasons for Partial-Birth Abortions: Dr. Martin Haskell

In his 1992 paper, Dr. Martin Haskell, who has performed over 1,000 partial-birth abortions, described the procedure as "a quick, surgical outpatient method that can be performed on a scheduled basis under local anesthesia." Dr. Haskell, a family practitioner who operates three abortion clinics, wrote that he "routinely performs this procedure on all patients 20 through 24 weeks" (4 1/2 to 5 1/2 months) pregnant [emphasis added], except on women who are more than 20 pounds overweight, have twins, or have certain other complicating factors.

For information on why Dr. Haskell adopted the method, the 1993 interview in Cincinnati Medicine is very instructive. Dr. Haskell explained that he had been performing dismemberment abortions (D&Es) to 24 weeks:

But they were very tough. Sometimes it was a 45-minute operation. I noticed that some of the later D&Es were very, very easy. So I asked myself why can't they all happen this way. You see the easy ones would have a foot length presentation, you'd reach up and grab the foot of the fetus, pull the fetus down and the head would hang up and then you would collapse the head and take it out. It was easy. . . . Then I said, "Well gee, if I just put the ultrasound up there I could see it all and I wouldn't have to feel around for it." I did that and sure enough, I found it 99 percent of the time. Kind of serendipity.

In 1993, the American Medical News-- the official newspaper of the AMA-- conducted a tape-recorded interview with Dr. Haskell concerning this specific abortion method, in which he said:

And I'll be quite frank: most of my abortions are elective in that 20-24 week range. . . . In my particular case, probably 20% [of this procedure] are for genetic reasons. And the other 80% are purely elective.

In a lawsuit in 1995, Dr. Haskell testified that women come to him for partial-birth abortions with "a variety of conditions. Some medical, some not so medical." Among the "medical" examples he cited was "agoraphobia" (fear of open places). Moreover, in testimony presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 17, 1995, ob/gyn Dr. Nancy Romer of Dayton (the city in which Dr. Haskell operates one of his abortion clinics) testified that three of her own patients had gone to Haskell's clinic for abortions "well beyond" 4 1/2 months into pregnancy, and that "none of these women had any medical illness, and all three had normal fetuses."

Brenda Pratt Shafer, a registered nurse who observed Dr. Haskell use the procedure to abort three babies in 1993, testified that one little boy had Down Syndrome, while the other two babies were completely normal and their mothers were healthy. [Nurse Shafer's testimony before the House Judiciary subcommittee, with associated documentation, is available on request to NRLC.

Reasons for Partial-Birth Abortions: Dr. James McMahon

The late Dr. James McMahon performed thousands of partial-birth abortions, including the third-trimester abortions performed on the five women who appeared with President Clinton at his April 10 veto ceremony. Dr. McMahon's general approach is illustrated by this illuminating statement in the July 5, 1993 edition of American Medical News:

"[A]fter 20 weeks where it frankly is a child to me, I really agonize over it because the potential is so imminently there. I think, 'Gee, it's too bad that this child couldn't be adopted.' On the other hand, I have another position, which I think is superior in the hierarchy of questions, and that is: 'Who owns the child?' It's got to be the mother.'"

In June, 1995, Dr. McMahon submitted to Congress a detailed breakdown of a "series" of over 2,000 of these abortions that he had performed. He classified only 9% (175 cases) as involving "maternal [health] indications," of which the most common was "depression."

Dr. Pamela E. Smith, director of Medical Education, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Mt. Sinai Hospital, Chicago, gave the Senate Judiciary Committee her analysis of Dr. McMahon's 175 "maternal indication" cases. Of this sample, 39 cases (22%) were for maternal "depression," while another 16% were "for conditions consistent with the birth of a normal child (e.g., sickle cell trait, prolapsed uterus, small pelvis)," Dr. Smith noted. She added that in one-third of the cases, the conditions listed as "maternal indications" by Dr. McMahon really indicated that the procedure itself would be seriously risky to the mother.

Of Dr. McMahon's series, another 1,183 cases (about 56%) were for "fetal flaws," but these included a great many non-lethal disorders, such as cleft palate and Down Syndrome. In an op ed piece written for the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Katherine Dowling, a family physician at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, examined Dr. McMahon's report on this "fetal flaws" group. She wrote:

Twenty-four were done for cystic hydroma (a benign lymphatic mass, usually treatable in a child of normal intelligence). Nine were done for cleft lip-palate syndrome (a friend of mine, mother of five, and a colleague who is a pulmonary specialist were born with this problem). Other reasons included cystic fibrosis (my daughter went through high school with a classmate with cystic fibrosis) and duodenal atresia (surgically correctable, but many children with this problem are moderately mentally retarded). Guess they can't enjoy life, can they? In fact, most of the partial-birth abortions in that [McMahon] survey were done for problems that were either surgically correctable or would result in some degree of neurologic or mental impairment, but would not harm the mother. Or they were done for reasons that were pretty skimpy: depression, chicken pox, diabetes, vomiting. ["What Constitutes A Quality Life?," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 28, 1996]

Over one-third of McMahon's 2,000-abortion "series" involved neither fetal nor maternal health problems, however trivial.

In Dr. McMahon's interviews with American Medical News and with Keri Harrison, counsel to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Dr. McMahon freely acknowledged that he performed late second trimester procedures that were "elective" even by his definition ("elective" meaning without fetal or maternal medical justification). After 26 weeks, Dr. McMahon claimed that all of his abortions were "non-elective" -- but his definition of "non-elective" was very expansive. His written submission stated:

"After 26 weeks [six months], those pregnancies that are not flawed are still non-elective. They are interrupted because of maternal risk, rape, incest, psychiatric or pediatric indications." [emphasis added] ["Pediatric indications" was Dr. McMahon's terminology for young teenagers.

Reasons for Partial-Birth Abortions: Dr. David Grundmann

Dr. David Grundmann, the medical director for Planned Parenthood of Australia, has written a paper in which he explicitly states that he uses the partial-birth abortion procedure (he calls it "dilatation and extraction") as his "method of choice" for abortions done after 20 weeks (4 1/2 months), and that he performs such abortions for a broad variety of social reasons. [This paper, "Abortion After Twenty Weeks in Clinical Practice: Practical, Ethical and Legal Issues," and associated documentation, is available from NRLC.]

Dr. Grundmann himself described the procedure in a television interview as "essentially a breech delivery where the fetus is delivered feet first and then when the head of the fetus is brought down into the top of the cervical canal, it is decompressed with a puncturing instrument so that it fits through the cervical opening."

In the 1994 paper, Dr. Grundmann listed several "advantages" of this method, such as that it "can be performed under local and/or twi-light anesthetic" with "no need for narcotic analgesics," "can be performed as an ambulatory out-patient procedure," and there is "no chance of delivering a live fetus." Among the "disadvantages," Dr. Grundmann wrote, is "the aesthetics of the procedure are difficult for some people; and therefore it may be difficult to get staff." (Dr. Grundmann also wrote that "abortion is an integral part of family planning. Theoretically this means abortions at any stage of gestation. Therefore I favor the availability of abortion beyond 20 weeks." )

Dr. Grundmann wrote that in Australia, late-second-trimester abortion is available "in many major hospitals, in most capital cities and large provincial centres" in cases of "lethal fetal abnormalities" or "gross fetal abnormalities," or "risk to maternal life," including "psychotic/suicidal behavior." However, Dr. Grundmann said, his Planned Parenthood clinic also offers the procedure after 20 weeks for women who fall into five additional "categories": (1) "minor or doubtful fetal abnormalities," (2) "extreme maternal immaturity i.e. girls in the 11 to 14 year age group," (3) women "who do not know they are pregnant," for example because of amenorrhea [irregular menstruation] "in women who are very active such as athletes or those under extreme forms of stress i.e. exam stress, relationship breakup...," (4) "intellectually impaired women, who are unaware of basic biology...," (5) "major life crises or major changes in socio-economic circumstances. The most common example of this is a planned or wanted pregnancy followed by the sudden death or desertion of the partner who is in all probability the bread winner."

next question| back to first page