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Here’s What ‘Partial-Birth Abortion’ Means

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AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The secretary of Health and Human Services recently dodged a question about “partial-birth abortion” by claiming that it isn’t a “medical term.” But it’s a term that both Congress and the Supreme Court have carefully described – and the definition is shockingly gruesome.


Secretary Xavier Becerra’s comments came during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on May 12. He spoke in response to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), who asked, “Do you agree that partial-birth abortion is illegal?” 

Becerra’s position on abortion is no secret: He has indicated his support multiple times. He boasts perfect ratings from abortion groups including Planned Parenthood and NARAL. As California attorney general, he brought charges against pro-life activists in 2017 after they investigated the trafficking of aborted baby parts. But, during his confirmation hearing, he avoided remarking on “partial-birth abortion.”

At the May hearing, Becerra responded, “We will continue to make sure we follow the law,” before claiming that “partial-birth abortion” isn’t proper terminology. 

“There is no medical term like ‘partial-birth abortion’ and so I would probably have to ask you what you mean by that to describe what is allowed by the law,” Becerra said. And, he added, “There is no law that deals specifically with the term ‘partial-birth abortion.’”

As Townhall reported, Rep. John Joyce (R-PA) cited the partial-birth abortion ban. Becerra admitted that “partial-birth abortion may be recognized in politics.” 

“My question is not so much with the term ‘partial-birth abortion,’” Becerra backtracked, “it’s with what the rights are of a woman” to “provide her with reproductive care.”


Yes, “partial-birth abortion” might not be a “medical” term, but it’s a term. A legal term, a political term, and a term used in the vernacular. 

Becerra has taken a position on partial-birth abortion in the past: he voted against Congress’ partial-birth abortion ban signed into law by President George W. Bush. Four years later, in 2007, the Supreme Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 in Gonzales v. Carhart.

The text notes of the act and the law itself (18 U.S.C. 1531) take great pains to describe partial-birth abortion. 

Partial-birth abortion is an abortion “in which a physician deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living, unborn child's body until either the entire baby's head is outside the body of the mother, or any part of the baby's trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother and only the head remains inside the womb, for the purpose of performing an overt act (usually the puncturing of the back of the child's skull and removing the baby's brains) that the person knows will kill the partially delivered infant, performs this act, and then completes delivery of the dead infant.”

“A moral, medical, and ethical consensus exists that the practice of performing a partial-birth abortion,” the text read, “is a gruesome and inhumane procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited.”

In Gonzales v. Carhart, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy took care that “partial-birth abortion” was defined while writing the court’s opinion. The court also referred to “partial-birth abortion” as “intact D&E,” or intact dilation and evacuation.


“Intact D&E, like regular D&E, begins with dilation of the cervix,” the justice wrote. But “in an intact D&E procedure the doctor extracts the fetus in a way conducive to pulling out its entire body, instead of ripping it apart.” 

He cited one doctor as testifying, “If I know I have good dilation and I reach in and the fetus starts to come out and I think I can accomplish it . . . then I use my forceps a little bit differently. I don’t close them quite so much, and I just gently draw the tissue out.”

The justice added, “A doctor also ‘may use forceps to grasp a fetal part, pull it down, and re-grasp the fetus at a higher level—sometimes using both his hand and a forceps—to exert traction to retrieve the fetus intact until the head is lodged in the [cervix].”

Partial-birth abortion, he continued, or “Intact D&E gained public notoriety” in 1992 when Dr. Martin Haskell described his method.

“In the usual intact D&E the fetus’ head lodges in the cervix,” the justice began, before citing Haskell.

“At this point, the right-handed surgeon slides the fingers of the left [hand] along the back of the fetus and ‘hooks’ the shoulders of the fetus with the index and ring fingers (palm down). While maintaining this tension, lifting the cervix and applying traction to the shoulders with the fingers of the left hand, the surgeon takes a pair of blunt curved Metzenbaum scissors,” he quoted Haskell. 


Haskell continued: “He carefully advances the tip, curved down, along the spine and under his middle finger until he feels it contact the base of the skull under the tip of his middle finger. [T]he surgeon then forces the scissors into the base of the skull or into the foramen magnum. Having safely entered the skull, he spreads the scissors to enlarge the opening. The surgeon removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents. With the catheter still in place, he applies traction to the fetus, removing it completely.”

Justice Kennedy stressed, “This is an abortion doctor’s clinical description.”

He went on to cite a nurse “who witnessed the same method” on a “26½-week fetus.” 

“Dr. Haskell went in with forceps and grabbed the baby’s legs and pulled them down into the birth canal. Then he delivered the baby’s body and the arms—everything but the head,” the nurse described. 

“The baby’s little fingers were clasping and un-clasping, and his little feet were kicking,” the nurse continued. “Then the doctor stuck the scissors in the back of his head, and the baby’s arms jerked out, like a startle reaction, like a flinch, like a baby does when he thinks he is going to fall. The doctor opened up the scissors, stuck a high-powered suction tube into the opening, and sucked the baby’s brains out. Now the baby went completely limp.”

Justice Kennedy commented that, today, “Dr. Haskell’s approach is not the only method.”


Another doctor “squeezes the skull after it has been pierced ‘so that enough brain tissue exudes to allow the head to pass through,’” he described.

Others “continue to pull the fetus out of the woman until it disarticulates at the neck, in effect decapitating it.”

“Another doctor testified he crushes a fetus’ skull not only to reduce its size but also to ensure the fetus is dead,” he wrote. “For the staff to have to deal with a fetus that has ‘some viability to it, some movement of limbs,’ according to this doctor, ‘[is] always a difficult situation.’”

The definition of partial-birth abortion exists in these clinical descriptions quoted by the Supreme Court, no less, and they expose just how violent abortion – the intentional destruction of an innocent human life – truly is.

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