The Partial-Birth Abortion Debate: ADisturbing Look Behind the Scenes

The struggle to ban partial-birth abortions has gone on much longer than it should. So many people have read about so many rounds of congressional voting and presidential action that it's no surprise they're asking: What more do we need to do to pass this bill? And when?

These are good and timely questions as we near the end of the 105th Congress. At the moment, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act has passed both House and Senate. In the House, it passed by more than the two-thirds majority necessary to override a presidential veto. The Senate passed it by 64 to 36 votes, three short of the number required to override a veto. The president vetoed the bill Oct. 10, and override votes in the House and Senate will take place likely in 1998.

To understand what's really at stake in the upcoming House and Senate votes, and how to approach them, a little background on the state-of-play is quite useful. It is not, by and large, a pretty story.

Beginning in 1995, one specter haunted the pro-life movement's efforts: Five women who claimed that, but for their partial-birth abortions, they would have either died, or been unable to bear any future children. President Clinton used these women's stories to great effect at a veto ceremony and any time he felt the need to justify his opposition to the ban.

However, hundreds of ob-gyns and specialists in high risk pregnancies came forward to declare that the women's medical scenarios made no sense. None of the conditions they cited, or any other fetal or maternal condition one could name, require a doctor to kill the child in order to remove him or her from the mother, let alone kill them in the gruesome manner of a partial-birth abortion. The doctors even formed a group: The Physicians' Ad hoc Coalition for Truth (PHACT). Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop echoed them. But the president wouldn't budge.

The AMA said partial-birth abortion was ‘not good medicine.’

Fast forward to 1997. The PHACT doctors were pressing their case with other doctors and with the American Medical Association (AMA). The latter is officially pro-legal abortion. After suggesting a few clarifying changes in the bill, the AMA endorsed the ban on partial-birth abortions. They said the procedure was “not good medicine” and that they were unable to find any situation in which this procedure would be the “only appropriate alternative.”

Reason triumphed, but only for a moment. In the second round of voting to pass the bill, the Senate fell three short of the votes needed to override a promised presidential veto—and, as promised, the president vetoed it for a second time.

It was a veto with a difference, though. In the inimitable words of The New York Times: “President Clinton waited until a time when few people were watching— late on a recent Friday, at the start of the holiest Jewish holiday—to veto [this] legislation” (Oct. 21).

Skipping over the ugly fact that President Clinton's written veto came immediately after his written commemoration of National Children's Day—another aspect of his veto message stands out. Subtly but surely, the president was sliding off the medical argument into a legal one.

He now claims that Roe v. Wade requires every abortion law to have a “health” of the mother exception, and the partial-birth bill does not. This, of course, ignores that the Supreme Court, in Roe, explicitly did not consider the constitutionality of the Texas law prohibiting killing a child in the process of delivery. That law is still on the Texas books today.

The president's reliance on Roe signals a major sea change in pro-abortion argumentation. Since the AMA's decision to endorse the ban, the women claiming a health necessity for the partial-birth procedure have disappeared from the public relations materials of the major pro-abortion groups. They are no longer found in the company of the Planned Parenthood lobbyist going door to door in Senate office buildings. It is a change that the media has little noticed, though they previously covered these women's stories to the advantage of the pro-abortion position.

In one of the recently released White House tapes, President Clinton makes his case for preserving partial-birth abortion by portraying the entire matter as a cynical political affair cooked up by Republicans to do what they're “very good at, which is to try to find ways to divide the American people.”

The president goes on to misstate the reasons for which partial-birth abortions are performed, by his account, 13,000 times a year on hydrocephalic children. He also portrays Catholics as led by the nose and internally divided on this matter. After all, he claims, three of the women at his veto ceremony were pro-life and Catholic. (Two of the women actually claimed this.)

Finally, he “reasons” that the whole matter must be politically timed since no one had thought about “these kids” during the prior 23 years of legal abortion. (The invention of the partial-birth procedure was publicized beginning in 1992; a bill to ban it was introduced in 1993).

In short, it's not likely that this debate will grow any more pleasant. But if each one of us is willing to put on our tall boots and walk a little further in the mud, and to write just one more letter to our senators, final success is only three votes away.

Helen Alvaré is director of planning and information in the office of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.