The Power of the Partial-Birth Abortion Debate

On Nov. 5, President Bush signed into law the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

Various abortion advocates are arguing against the law in courts and in the court of public opinion, where a variation of the party line has emerged.

So far the players are sticking close to the book.

NARAL Pro-Choice America aired television ads set in a doctor's office with the camera focusing on a closed door and the voiceover saying, “President Bush just signed the first federal law that will criminalize safe medical procedures … Once government is in the door, who knows what they'll do next?”

Steve Neal of the Chicago Sun-Times said: “What right does Bush have to come between a woman and her doctor and her constitutional rights?”

On PBs' “Newshour,” University of Cincinnati obstetrics professor Dr. Paula Hillard eschewed all attempts at subtlety in driving home the part line: “What I would say, first of all, is that this bill is incredibly deceptive. I think American women will be absolutely outraged when they realize what this bill really says and what it will do. And what it will do is to place the government between a woman and her physician.”

And later, like a good team player: “Once again I would bring us back to the issue of the government getting between the relationship between an individual woman and her physician.”

So, partial-birth abortion is no longer an abortion, it is a relationship.

And the ban on the practice is not a law overwhelmingly passed by elected representatives of both parties. The ban is the Big Bad Government or even Bush himself standing there in the doctor's office, getting in the way of the relationship.

But not to worry: We have a winning approach of our own, and it is deceptively simple. As Bush said at the signing ceremony for the partial-birth abortion ban, “The best case against partial-birth abortion is a simple description of what happens and to whom it happens.” Indeed it is. Res ipsa loquitur: The thing speaks for itself.

There is little doubt that the last eight years of public debate over partial-birth abortion has had something to do with the positive change in public opinion on abortion. Ten years ago a significant majority of Americans called themselves “pro choice,” but no longer. Today, the numbers are very close to even, and if the trend continues, we'll soon see most Americans identifying themselves as pro-life.

It is difficult to talk around the subject when the subject is a partial-birth abortion. Still, there are those who try or who seem unmoved by the brutality of the procedure. For them, a further truth about abortion is in order.

Two rancorous, vitriolic e-mails greeted me the morning after a quote of mine appeared in the New York Times about the new law. One was from a man calling the ban a travesty and mocking its supporters. The other was from a woman charging me with hubris and thanking me for rousing her to fight for women's rights.

I answered both in the same way: “If you are interested, I will explain why I believe that women deserve better than partial-birth abortion.”

I wrote that abortions can occur later in pregnancy when women (or teens) don't really want an abortion at all but are fearful of pressure from families or boyfriends. They hide their pregnancy, thinking that when it is “too late” those around them will have to support them and their baby. But then they learn that it is never “too late” for a legal abortion — that the law will not come to their rescue as they had thought — that they are left vulnerable to the pressures they had feared.

Some sense must be made of the fact that, according to the National Abortion Federation itself, the vast majority of these abortions are done on healthy women with healthy fetuses at 20 weeks or more into pregnancy. What is driving these women to such an act of desperation? Who has failed them?

I said that even where tests for fetal abnormalities do result in tragic news, a further tragedy is often perpetrated on the woman — she is offered no care, no support to get through her pregnancy. Just abortion, period. Yet there is mounting evidence that women who have abortions for fetal abnormalities suffer a number of psychological complications — more than women who give birth to a baby who soon afterward dies.

Finally, I said I thought it was tragic that those who support the practice for political reasons are putting women at risk of serious health consequences— risks from a procedure that is never medically necessary, according to the American Medical Association. I described at some length how women who suffer through this type of abortion face a damaged cervix, torn uterus, severe hemorrhage and possible hysterectomy.

The bottom line for me, I said, is that this procedure is painful and unnecessary for everyone involved — the woman and her baby.

Their responses surprised me. Both thanked me, sincerely, for writing. It was clear they had read and considered my thoughts. The man revealed that he was a public health educator and said he would present some of my arguments when he taught, “so that all can make an educated, critically reflected-upon decision.” The woman said she hoped there were alternatives for women who find themselves with a life-threatening pregnancy, such as delivering the baby and doing all that can be done to keep the baby alive.

These might not count as pro-life converts, but the abortion lobby would not be happy with their responses, either. They are children of a culture that has been taught to believe that abortion is good for women and that one has to be willing to ignore the death of the baby for this, the “greater cause.” But these seemingly hard-line “pro-choicers” are now considering other arguments against what Archbishop Charles Chaput calls this “uniquely intimate form of violence.”

If the death of a baby does not reach the heart, perhaps the suffering of his mother will.

Cathleen Cleaver Ruse is director of planning and information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.