What partial-birth abortions and assault weapons have in common

Jacob Sullum

10/24/2003 12:00:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

On the same day The New York Times reported that the Senate had approved a federal ban on "partial birth" abortions, the paper carried a full-page ad in support of the federal ban on "assault weapons." The coincidence was striking because the two bans are similar in several conspicuous ways.

To begin with, both are based on distinctions that dissolve upon close examination. "Partial birth" abortion is said to be especially immoral, but it isn't. "Assault weapons" are said be especially dangerous, but they aren't.

"Partial birth" abortions, a method that doctors call "dilation and extraction" (D&X), are performed in the fifth month or later and account for around 0.2 percent of abortions, according to survey data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute. They involve partly removing the fetus from the uterus, poking a hole in its skull with a sharp implement, and sucking out the brain through a tube to collapse the head so the rest of the body can be removed.

It's not surprising that 64 senators, including many who consider themselves "pro-choice" on abortion, decided this procedure was indefensible. But is a D&X really more objectionable 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?

If so, it's only because the killing is more visible and because a D&X starts out like a delivery, thereby emphasizing the similarity between the fetus and a baby. Those factors make "partial birth" abortions an easier target politically, but they are morally insignificant.

Likewise, so-called assault weapons, with their superficial resemblance to military firearms, may look scarier than other guns, but for all practical purposes their capabilities are the same. In particular, they fire at the same rate as any semiautomatic, although anti-gun activists continue to falsely imply that the weapons covered by the 1994 ban are machine guns.

Consider the headline on the New York Times ad, which was sponsored by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Million Mom March: "12 Slugs in a Cop's Body. As Fast As You Can Say, 'National Rifle Association.' " The ad warns that the NRA wants to repeal the "assault weapon" ban, thereby legalizing "military-style rapid-fire assault rifles."

Recognizing that the line drawn by advocates of the "assault weapon" ban did not make sense, supporters of gun rights concluded that the main point of the law was to establish a precedent for further regulation. Abortion rights supporters drew the same conclusion about the "partial birth" abortion ban, declaring that what seemed to be a modest restriction was in fact a grave threat to "a woman's right to choose."

In both cases, opponents of the ban ended up looking like hysterical extremists, while the advocates looked like moderates. From the choice of terminology to the use of pictures intended to horrify, the ban campaigns were tactically brilliant.

Still, there are some significant differences. For one thing, the right to keep and bear arms has an explicit basis in the Constitution, while the right to have an abortion does not, Roe v. Wade notwithstanding. (Then again, both bans are unconstitutional for a different reason: They far exceed Congress's authority to regulate interstate commerce, since they extend to purely intrastate activity.)

Another difference between the two bans is that supporters of the abortion bill are more honest than the anti-gun activists about what they're trying to accomplish. President Bush, who is expected to sign the bill soon, called it "very important legislation that will end an abhorrent practice and continue to build a culture of life in America."

That "culture of life" presumably will include the recognition that D&E abortions are just as bad as D&X abortions. If killing a fetus is murder, doing it hidden from view does not make it OK.

During the debate over the bill, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., displayed a photograph of a 21-week-old fetus who had suffered from a birth defect that was surgically corrected in the uterus. "Is little Samuel's hand the hand of a person," he asked, "or is it the hand of a piece of property?"

Strictly speaking, the question was not relevant to the legislation at hand, which does not forbid the killing of 21-week-old fetuses, provided an approved method is used. But that very inadequacy will make Brownback's question harder to avoid in the future.