The Horror of ’Partial-birth Abortion

By Michael Fumento

Scripps Howard News Service, October 22, 2003
Copyright 2003 Scripps Howard News Service

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This is what Pat Schroeder didn’t want her colleagues to see.

Aside from zebras, few things are black and white. But the partial-birth abortion ban President Bush is about to sign is an exception. And one of the best demonstrations of why actually came from one of the most zealous supporters of keeping the procedure legal.

Back in 1995, when the House first considered a ban, then-Rep. Pat Schroeder, Democrat of Colorado, fought desperately to prevent simple drawings of the surgery from being circulated among her fellows. She declared it would turn the House into "a chamber of horrors."

There she was, declaring that something too awful to illustrate must nonetheless be kept legal.

The procedure, as accurately described in the Los Angeles Times, "requires a physician to extract a fetus, feet first, from the womb and through the birth canal until all but its head is exposed. Then the tips of surgical scissors are thrust into the base of the fetus’ skull, and a suction catheter is inserted through the opening and the brain is removed."

Now you see what worried Schroeder. And you can understand why, although surveys often show Americans favoring legalized abortion (depending on the wording), a January Gallup poll found that 70 percent want partial-birth abortion banned.

Yet the National Coalition of Abortion Providers back in 1997 estimated that the method was used 3,000 to 5,000 times annually; while a recent Alan Guttmacher Institute survey indicates the number is steadily increasing.

I interviewed a woman who temporarily assisted a doctor who performed the procedure. "It was the worst thing I ever saw," Brenda Shafer told me. "I’m a nurse. I’ve seen just about every kind of death you can imagine. I’ve had children die in my arms. But nothing compares to what I saw in that clinic. I kept telling myself this isn’t happening; it’s just in a dream."

A Downs syndrome fetus she saw aborted was 6 1/2 months old. "I’ve had a couple of friends who had babies that old," said Shafer. After the fetus’ brains were sucked out and it was delivered, the mother "held it in her arms and when she looked at that baby she started crying ’Oh God, forgive me, what have I done!’ We had to take the baby away from her; she wouldn’t give it up."

Partial-birth abortion advocates don’t say it’s the best thing since indoor plumbing, but they insist it must remain a woman’s choice. Yet the only true choice is an informed one, and it’s hard to imagine many women would knowingly undergo so horrific a surgery.

But a third of the Senate thought otherwise. "For the first time in history Congress is banning a medical procedure that is considered medically necessary by physicians," claimed lead opponent, Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. Not true.

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This is a fetus still in the second trimester, with almost no legal protection.

A pioneer of the procedure, now-deceased Los Angeles physician James McMahon, submitted to the House Judiciary Committee documentation that in one series of about 2,000 such abortions he performed, only 9 percent were performed for "maternal" health reasons. Of those the most common reason was "depression," a highly treatable condition.

Bush "will become the first United States president to criminalize a safe medical procedure," bewailed Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. Ah, but safe for whom? In the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled governments could not severely restrict (and even then not ban) abortions until the third trimester of pregnancy or the 27th week. This was based on evidence as to when offspring could live outside the womb. But after forceful expulsion, perinatologists say babies will usually gasp for breath and sometimes survive for hours at the 20th week. Lung development can maintain respiration at 23 weeks.

Partial-birth abortion is killing living, breathing babies.

Faced with this undeniable reality, some abortion rights advocates are desperately trying to change the subject. "I see where this is going," said Democratic Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. "A couple of votes here or there in the next election and you can kiss Roe v. Wade goodbye."

In fact, Congress cannot strike down Roe. Only the Supreme Court can do that, which would require it to admit it erred in suddenly "discovering" the right to an abortion tucked away in the Constitution. Methods of abortion would play no role in such a reversal.

But if Harkin and friends are worried that a focus on partial-birth abortion may ultimately raise qualms of conscience about abortion generally and the "need" for more than a million annually in this country, he may be right.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on laws.