Partial-Birth Abortion

There are hardly many topics that can raise such debate, and invoke such passionate discussion, as does abortion. Whether one is pro-life or pro-choice , the clear and definitive line between the pros and cons of abortion predictably leads to a standstill of opinion. Each side is sure that their view is the right view, and the nature of the abortion issue does not allow for a middle ground. Abortion arguments, however, are even further broadened and complicated by the sub-issues they include. One such sub-issue is partial-birth abortion.

Partial-birth abortions are those that are performed in the late second or third trimester of pregnancy. The procedure usually calls for the abortionist to turn the unborn baby into the breech (or feet first ) position, then pulling the child from the mother until all but the head is exposed. Scissors are then jabbed into the base of the baby s skull where a catheter is inserted to suction out the baby s brain, effectively collapsing the skull and allowing for the easy removal of the dead baby from the mother.

To date, about forty states have deemed partial-birth abortions illegal, though, on the federal level, attempts by Congress to ban this practice had been repeatedly vetoed by Bill Clinton. Current president George W. Bush indicated during the election campaign that he would fight for the abolition of these abortions, though no action has been taken as of yet. Furthermore, the Federal Supreme Court struck down a ban on partial-birth abortions in July of 2000, deeming it unconstitutional, perhaps feeling a need to protect Roe v. Wade.

The Catholic Church, of course, is strongly opposed to partial-birth abortions, and has consistently presented a strong lobbying presence in Washington D.C., pledging to continue their efforts until the procedure is banned. In his homily at St. Patrick s Cathedral on Sunday, January 18, 1998, the late John Cardinal O Connor reiterated the Church s rejection of partial-birth abortion, calling it infanticide. Responding to charges by pro-choice advocates that pro-lifers are only using the partial-birth abortion platform as an inroads to the beginning of the end of all abortion, Cardinal O Connor said, Even if you accept other abortions, you still (must be) appalled by infanticide. He then added, A broader issue lies behind the partial-birth dispute. It isn t the fate of Roe v. Wade, it s the future of infanticide. (Catholic New York, Oct. 1998)

On October 4, 1998, Cardinal O Connor delivered a homily in which he read a graphic account of a late-term abortion as described by Brenda Pratt Shafer, a registered nurse who was assigned by her nursing agency to assist in the abortion procedure. Up until that time, Nurse Shafer had considered herself very pro-choice, and did not give the assignment a second thought. The Cardinal read from Nurse Shafer s account, The baby s little fingers were clasping and unclasping, his feet kicking. Then the doctor stuck scissors in the back of the head, and the baby s arms jerked out startled, like a baby does when he thinks he s going to fall. Then the doctor opened up the incision, stuck the high-powered suction into the head and sucked the baby s brains out. (Catholic New York, Feb. 1998)

It is very difficult to comprehend the defense of partial-birth abortion after becoming privy to such a graphic and emotional description. Later in the same homily, Cardinal O Connor added, Do we dare to use the word pro-choice for a woman who burns her child with cigarettes, beats her child, throws the child out the window? Is it fair to say that is a woman s choice? (Catholic New York, Feb. 1998)

The Cardinal s point is well taken. The argument that the unborn baby is not truly a child becomes difficult to fathom when we are presented with a picture of a fully-formed baby, arms flailing, fingers wiggling, whose life is ended by means of a sharp object being jabbed into its head. Even the Congress of the United States, who continuously refuses to overturn Roe v. Wade, voted to ban partial-birth abortion after being presented with the facts, only to have the bill vetoed by Bill Clinton.

One of the arguments against the ban is that government should have no say in medical issues. According to a brochure entitled Reproductive Rights, published by the American Civil Liberties Union, legislators should not get in the way of doctors developing new surgical procedures because they will impede medical progress. Additionally, the ACLU argues that women who carry pregnancies into their seventh and eighth months do not abort on a whim, but do so because the pregnancy endangers their lives or health. (Reproductive Rights, ACLU, 2000) If we are to accept this argument as fact, however, then the ACLU should not be opposed to the federal ban because there are provisions included that would allow a partial-birth abortion to take place if it were deemed necessary to save the life of the mother. Furthermore, there is strong doubt present within some factions of the medical community as to whether or not the procedure is ever necessary. In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, dated September 26, 1996, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop wrote, With all that modern medicine has to offer, partial-birth abortions are not needed to save the life of the mother, and the procedure s impact on a woman s cervix can put future pregnancies at risk. In reality, it appears that pro-choice groups like the ACLU are using the issue of the mother s health to mask the fact that they favor elective legalization of the procedure, no matter the reason.

I must say, I have tried, though have found it quite difficult, to present both sides of the partial-birth abortion issue. I had heard of the procedure before, but knew it only as an abortion that was performed somewhat late in a pregnancy. When I discovered the details of the act, as a result of researching for this paper, I was completely horrified. As a Roman Catholic, I was always taught that abortion was wrong, though I must admit that I was not really sold on one side of the issue or the other. I realize that my ambivalence is a result of a lack of knowledge on the subject, and, perhaps, even a fear of commitment as a result of the intense passion exhibited on both sides of the fence. Writing this paper, however, was an awakening for me, and it served to reinforce the notion that one must educate oneself in order to be able to formulate a valid opinion.

How can anyone look at the facts that make up the partial-birth abortion argument, and, with good conscience, decide that it is ok to remove most of a living being from its mother, and then kill it? How can proponents of pro-choice values condone and advocate the elective murder of a living being? Why do politicians find it necessary to concede to these groups, even when the facts scream of injustice? Some may argue that we must maintain a separation of church and state, but religion need not even play a role in this issue. Surely, none of these groups would justify the killing of a five-year-old child by its mother because she felt like doing it, or because she just didn t want to be a mother anymore.

Perhaps valid arguments can be made supporting the legalization of earlier term, or more common abortions. The question of when a fetus actually becomes a child will probably never be answered to the satisfaction of all people. It is quite clear, however, that when entering the seventh and eighth months of a pregnancy, the baby is a formed, viable, and sensitive human creation, able, in most cases, to exist and thrive outside of the mother s womb. Surely, the majority of us know someone who has given birth prematurely to a healthy and beautiful baby. Would anyone dare say that he or she is not yet a child?


Alcorn, Randy. 2000. Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers Inc.

American Civil Liberties Union. 2000. Reproductive Rights: Partial-Birth Abortion Bans. The American Civil Liberties Union, Copyright 2000.

Letter to the Editor. New York Times. Sep. 26, 1996.

McDonnell, Claudia. Oct. 1998. Infanticide, Catholic New York.

O Connor, John Cardinal. Feb. 1998. The Issue, Homily of Jan. 18, 1998, Catholic New York.

Poust, Mary Ann. Nov. 1998. Ultimate Child Abuse, Catholic New York.

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