The Myth of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban
by Adam McIntosh
In 2003, President George W. Bush signed into law the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. It was hailed as a pro-life victory across the nation:
Today’s signing of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act is truly an historic moment… This is an achievement for life, a great victory for women, for unborn children and for all Americans.”
“We are thrilled that this historic legislation has finally completed its journey through the legislative process… we are celebrating this milestone protecting the unborn.”
“…it’s a major victory for prolife Americans… This is the first time in 30 years that we’ve seen reflected in public policy the cultural shift that has been taking place, and that is back toward respecting life… We have come with our toes to the line of crossing over into barbarism and we’ve said we’re not going to go there.”
Politicians have used their support of the ban as pro-life street cred ever since. The bill’s author, former presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum, used the ban as proof that there was not a stronger pro-life leader in Congress than himself. (Ignoring, of course, the fact that he never once introduced or cosponsored legislation to outlaw abortion or repeal Roe v. Wade – unlike another member of Congress.)
But does the hype match reality? Would the ban outlaw partial-birth abortions from that point on? Technically, yes. In all actuality, not at all. Let me explain.
The partial-birth abortion procedure is commonly described as pulling the baby out of its mother’s womb backwards, up to its neck. While the baby’s head is still inside the birth canal, the doctor then crushes its skull with a medical utensil, instantly killing the child. Prohibiting this procedure would certainly be a noble goal even if we could not outlaw abortion entirely. But notice carefully how the ban defines the procedure and what it prohibits:
The term ‘partial-birth abortion’ means an abortion in which the person performing the abortion, deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother, for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus; and performs the overt act, other than completion of delivery, that kills the partially delivered living fetus.”
According to the official text, as long as the breech baby isn’t pulled out past its navel it can still be murdered by the physician. The baby can be outside its mother from the hips down – with wiggling legs and toes – and it is lawful to kill it. Similarly, in a head-first presentation, the skull can still be crushed or punctured as long as the entire head hasn’t exited the mother. If only part of the head has exited, the doctor is free to kill. I don’t know about you, but that still sounds like a partial-birth abortion to me. We are supposed to praise this legislation as a monumental victory; yet there is no reason to believe that it would save the life of one child. Rather than outlawing the procedure, it merely limited how far the baby can be pulled out.
By defining terms so narrowly, victory was perceived without any true accomplishment. If intentional, this is an example of political manipulation. If unintentional, it’s an example of poor lawmaking. No doubt, well-intentioned activists and legislators supported the ban, including Congressman Ron Paul (though not without a disclaimer). But the pro-life movement should carefully consider the legislation it rallies behind. We shouldn’t be so quick to accept every bill that has the appearance of pro-life principles. In our attempt to outlaw a gruesome abortion procedure, we actually legalized it. The fight against partial-birth abortion is far from over; sifting through political word games is just the first step.