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'Partial-birth' ban America's favorite feel-good, bad law


The term“partial birth abortion” brings to mind the following scenario: A woman realizes too late into her pregnancy that she doesn’t want to go through. The pregnancy is so far along that it cannot be terminated by traditional means.


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 piece.

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 injury.

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 congressional supervision.

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 and gentlemen.

*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 child.

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 medical alternative?

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.

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