The fetus is basically a
small child at this point, and as soon as it starts
breathing on its own, it is legally a human being and
Mama Trash is stuck with it. So, in order to legally
kill it, Doctor Demento must deliver everything but
the head, puncture it, suck out its brains, throw it
in the waste bin and call it a day.
At least that's how my High School math teacher described
it to my geometry class. And he should know; he heard
it on right wing radio shows. He went on to explain
that if a baby is born with the umbilical chord wrapped
around its neck, it hasn't breathed on its own and
a mother can allow it to die.
This wasn't in reference to any actual case, but
if a right wing nutjob figured out that loophole,
you just know that murderous mothers around the country
were going through labor with crossed fingers, dying
to take advantage of that little gem.
Horrifying. Murder. Infanticide. Call it what you
like. I, personally, like to call it a work of terrifying
fiction worthy of Stephen King: a twisted story in
which unspeakable horror befalls children, but is
crudely narrated and generally unconvincing.
The product of a sick mind, yes. Just not a product
of American medicine, or even the real world. This
is the product of right wing loonies—possibly
well-meaning, but definitely a little touched in the
head. But if your left hand is on the Bible and your
right wing is in the White House, in this country
you can spin such a tale into real live legislation.
L. Ron Hubbard never had such luck converting science
fiction into religious zeal.
I told a friend of mine my relief at a second Federal
Judge’s having ruled the Partial Birth Abortion
Ban unconstitutional. He grew angry. I asked him what
he knew about partial birth abortion.
His answer? “I know it should be illegal.”
That was, really, all he knew.
Call it an old fashioned prejudice, but I believe
that if you don’t have the facts, you shouldn’t
have an opinion, either. So allow me to share.
My Geometry teacher, shockingly enough, was misinformed.
The point of viability for a fetus, according to the
Supreme Court, is 24 weeks gestation, not the moment
it breathes on its own.
“Partial-birth abortion,” a rather vague
description for certain instances of intact dilation
and extraction, is a myth of the right wing. Still,
last week when a second Federal judge ruled the ban
on the procedure unconstitutional by Justice O’Connor’s
standards, a majority of Americans were horrified.
How could this procedure, described to them in lurid
detail, be legal?
O’Connor had specifically stated in Stenberg
v. Carhart that exemptions for the health of
the mother must be made in any law limiting abortion
rights. Though Democrats in the Senate had argued
that exceptions be made for instances in which birth
would cause permanent debilitating injury to the mother,
the bill’s authors successfully shot the amendment
down as a potentially gaping loophole.
After all, we can’t have doctors and patients
deciding what a permanent, debilitating injury is,
can we? That kind of thing, in their mind, is best
left to legislators.
The truth is that the partial birth abortion ban,
itself, is a phony ban on a real procedure, based
on speculation about misuse that was developed by
right wing radio and "religious" activists,
designed solely for the purpose of demonizing abortion
procedures in general and eroding the rights established
in Roe v. Wade. It’s unlikely to stop
a single abortion, and if it does, it will likely
cost the life of the mother to ensure the safe delivery
of a dead or dying infant.
Intact dilation and extraction, a general umbrella
of procedures under which “partial-birth abortions”
fall, was developed in 1992 by Dr. Martin Haskell.
In the history of abortion procedures, it is very
new indeed. It wasn’t even until the 19th century
that Americans began restricting the procedure. So,
as a new procedure, it makes sense that it should
fall under a certain degree of scrutiny.
What the guys on sidewalks with giant pictures on
sandwich boards don’t tell you is that it was
developed as an alternative to an older, more ghastly
procedure: dilation and evacuation. This is when the
mother is partially dilated and some sort of grasping
tool is used to pull the fetus out—piece by
This procedure is somewhat dangerous to the mother,
though, as bones begin to calcify at about 13 weeks
gestation (24 weeks is the legal point of viability,
at which time states are allowed to limit abortion
rights), and shards or even entire body parts can
be accidentally left in the uterus after the fetus
is dismembered inside, causing infection and other
Congratulations, right-to-lifers! Now that the safer
alternative is illegal, this even
more horrific procedure is what doctors will once
again have to resort to. You haven’t stopped
a single abortion, but you’ve placed the slutty
mother’s life at risk. You must be proud.
These women will be at greater risks because the
loonies on the right would like you to believe that
a woman would simply choose to undergo this horrifying,
two-to-three day long procedure, and end her pregnancy
late in the second trimester on a whim, to further
their argument that abortion is an evil procedure
practiced by an irresponsible medical community for
morally bankrupt women.
The facts don’t really back them up. Partial-birth
abortions (see, you can have your silly, unscientific
name, and I’ll still win) account for less than
0.2 percent of all abortions in the United States.
Of those, most are performed at 20-24 weeks of gestation,
or late into the second trimester but within the Supreme
Court’s time frame. A study conducted in 1996
could only locate two cases of “partial birth
abortion” performed after 24 weeks in that year
in the United States.
Admittedly, abortion rates dropped greatly through
the 1990s, but the procedure was developed in 1992
and no earlier statistics were available. Although
right wingers have succeeded in labeling this a “late
term procedure,” only two were
performed after the point of viability, at 26 and
33 weeks gestation.
So rare is this procedure in stages of gestation
not already protected by the constitution that one
might even call it a drastic decision to make. (Did
I mention it can take two to three days?) I would
venture to say that, contrary to right wing radio’s
demented vision of murderous doctors and depraved,
immoral mothers, the medical community seems to be
using the procedure responsibly without any crowd-pleasing
Of those performed, the reasons most commonly given
(although again I emphasize that statistics are very
difficult to come by) were:
*The fetus had died late in development, and delivering
it through natural means would have harmed the mother
both physically and psychologically. (This type of
procedure is not prohibited under the ban, but accounts
for many, and possibly a majority, of the procedures
included in statistics.)
*The fetus suffered from anencephaly, meaning that
while it would carry to term, it would not have developed
most of its brain. If not still born, such a child
will usually die less than five days after birth.
This defect is not usually discovered until late into
the second trimester, when a partial birth or dilation
and evacuation are the only options. The ban then
leaves mothers with a choice between dilation and
evacuation, or giving birth to their brainless child,
then watching it die. Your compassionate conservative
President’s proudest accomplishment, ladies
*The fetus developed a severe case of hydrocephalus,
a swelling of the skull (due to a flooding of cerebrospinal
fluid around the brain) which in extreme cases makes
it impossible to pass through the birth canal. Many
(about one in 500 American children) suffer from
milder cases of the disease, but the ban does not
make exceptions for cases wherein the mother would
suffer permanent debilitating injury (swelling can
go up to 250 percent normal size), only to give
birth to a hopelessly brain-damaged, if not stillborn,
infant. I think it would be interesting to see how
Congressmen would feel about their wives or daughters
being permanently handicapped in order to go through
the trauma of giving birth to a deformed, dying
There are many other possible reasons for a late
term abortion, of course, and these were just some
of the more common reasons. The point was this: Do
you really think with these cruel realities out there
that the two late term partial birth
abortions I was able to identify were… what?
Performed because the mother forgot to enter the first
abortion appointment in her Palm Pilot? Isn’t
it more likely that these were the only responsible
Abortion, of course, is a serious issue. But I often
get the feeling that neither side is really taking
the argument seriously. Why should they, when they
can just invent ridiculous horror stories, sure to
elicit greater support from the public?
Those opposed to legalized abortion try to gain
sympathy through disgusting descriptions of medical
procedures (they should try watching a face lift on
Discovery some time,) or making the ridiculous claim
that the termination of a fetus is morally equivalent
to the murder of a living human being with a brain,
body, friends and family. The Supreme Court’s
decision in Roe v. Wade was based around
the idea that the constitution implied a right to
privacy. So, if first trimester fetuses are indeed
living human beings, and the right wing could prove
that, its right to life (stated in the constitution)
would supercede that.
The problem? They're not, so they can't.
Those in favor of legal abortions generally focus
their argument on women’s choice over her own
body, which (assuming the woman was not raped,) is
a rather inconsistent argument to make. But notice
how I said “legal abortions”. That’s
because abortions are going to happen whether we like
it or not, and if our goal is to safeguard lives,
wouldn’t we rather they happen in the safety
of a clinic than in the filth of a back alley?
And, look—they've got pictures, too. Gerri
Santoro died in 1964 of a botched home abortion. During
the period of widespread anti-abortion laws, about
200 women died each year in America as a result of
such attempts, and many thousands more were treated
in emergency rooms. There’s no scientific argument
about whether or not they were alive, is there?
Should the 24-week definition of life be revisited,
given the advances in science we’ve made since
1973? Certainly. But let’s base the argument
in reality, not the twisted fantasy of a right-wing
loony desperate for an undeserved stumble through
the Pearly Gates. The reality is that the partial
birth abortion ban is a feel-good, do-bad law written
to erode Roe v. Wade without taking on the
impossible task of challenging it on a scientific
or moral level.