As someone who has followed the partial-birth abortion controversy for 10 years, I was gratified to see President Bush sign legislation banning the procedure. Congress has twice before passed similar legislation, but President Clinton vetoed them both times. He justified his decision with indignant self-righteousness, saying that the ban would endanger the health and future fertility of women. Both were false. But then, from the beginning, this issue has brought out the worst in the pro-abortion lobby.
They began by claiming that no such procedure existed. When this fiction was punctured, NARAL and Planned Parenthood substituted the argument that the procedure was extremely rare, performed only a couple of hundred times a year, and then only in cases where the life of the mother was at stake. When this claim was discredited by investigative reporting showing that the true figure was closer to several thousand than a couple of hundred, the advocates attacked again, this time claiming that the baby died a painless death before the procedure even got started due to the anesthesia administered to the mother. Anesthesiologists testified before Congress that this false claim had caused their pregnant patients great anxiety. The truth is that pregnant women safely undergo surgery all the time without harm to their developing fetuses. Anesthesia administered to the mother not only does not kill the baby, it doesn't harm the baby either.
Advocates next advanced the fiction that partial birth abortion, which they had renamed the "intact dilation and extraction," was performed only on severely disabled fetuses or in medical emergencies involving the mother.
This march of mendacity was interrupted by one burst of candor in 1997. Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, elected to come clean and admit that, contrary to the "party line" assertions of most abortion advocates (himself included), partial-birth abortions were actually performed several thousand times a year (perhaps 6,000 to 7,000), mostly on healthy mothers with healthy babies. In 1999, in Kansas alone, 182 partial birth abortions were performed on babies declared "viable," and in each case the reason cited was the mental, not physical health of the mother. Other investigations revealed that the reasons women sought these second trimester abortions were quite similar to the reasons women chose abortion in the first trimester.
In fact, partial birth abortions, which chemically dilate the cervix, can endanger the future fertility of women who choose them. No medical authorities have provided testimony that the procedure is ever medically necessary for the sake of the mother. Why then did Dr. Martin Haskell originate the procedure? The answer appears to be that D and E abortions, the other method for terminating an 18-26 week pregnancy, is difficult for doctors to perform in their offices. A D and E involves dismembering the fetus in utero and then pulling it out piece by piece. By the time the fetus is 20 or so weeks old, he or she becomes difficult to cut. Therefore the "intact" evacuation -- pulling the baby out by the feet, plunging scissors into the skull, vacuuming out the brain and pulling the collapsed skull through the vagina -- is preferred. Brenda Pratt Shafer, a nurse who was strongly pro-choice before witnessing a partial-birth abortion, described her horror at seeing the partially delivered baby squirming and opening and closing his fists before the doctor finished him off.
Abortion advocates have strenuously fought this legislation as they have other mild protections for the unborn like the "Born Alive Infants Protection Act," which specified only that if a child happened to survive an abortion, he or she would enjoy full rights as a human being. They do this because they are sure that each new abortion restriction is a staging ground for the final assault on Roe v. Wade.
I wish that were true. I'd love to see Roe overturned and abortion limited as the states see fit. Sadly, this bill is valuable as a symbol but little more. It symbolizes discomfort with the most brutal face of abortion. But the other forms of second trimester abortions are equally ghastly, and the law does not (the advocates' arguments to the contrary notwithstanding) touch them. There is no question that this represents a political victory for pro-life forces. Whether it was a substantive achievement is open to doubt.