Jacob Sullum

"We're finally here debating the most difficult, contentious social issue of our day," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said shortly before he and 63 of his colleagues voted to ban "partial birth" abortions. The issue, according to Brownback: "What is the legal right of the child in utero?"

Yet the ban, which President Bush has promised to sign once it's approved by the House, has nothing to do with that question. It does not recognize the fetus as a person, and it probably will not prevent a single abortion.

Rather, the bill prohibits a particular abortion method, "dilation and extraction" (D&X), that accounts for something like 0.2 percent of abortions, according to survey data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute. The bill's supporters, who have been trying to enact the ban for eight years, insist that women who want to end their pregnancies have other options that are not just equally acceptable but medically preferable.

The bill calls D&X "a gruesome and inhumane procedure" that "blurs the line between abortion and infanticide." In a D&X abortion, which is performed in the fifth month or later, the physician partly removes the fetus from the uterus; pokes a hole in its skull with a sharp implement; sucks out the brain through a tube, thereby collapsing the head; and removes the now-dead fetus.

"Gruesome" is an apt description. But is a D&X really more gruesome than the much more common "dilation and evacuation" (D&E) method, in which the fetus is dismembered inside the uterus and removed piece by piece?

Gruesomeness aside, it is hard to see a moral distinction between the two methods. Either way, the fetus is mutilated and killed, which counts as torture and murder for those who consider the fetus a person.

Politically, however, the campaign against "partial birth" abortions has been a masterstroke, attracting broad public support and putting the abortion rights movement on the defensive. Because a D&X initially resembles a delivery, it vividly drives home the uncomfortable similarity between a fetus and a baby.

"Partial-birth abortions involve the killing of a child that is . . . mere inches away from becoming a 'person,' " says the bill. The claim is a bit misleading, since fetuses aborted this way would not necessarily have survived outside the womb. Still, the ban invites supporters of "a woman's right to choose" to think seriously about how far that right should extend.

Abortion rights activists, as usual, have dodged the issue, insisting that any limits are intolerable. "This bill goes directly to the heart of a woman's constitutional right to choose," says Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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