Partial-Birth Abortion in a Moral Framework

Committee on the Judiciary

Testimony of Helen M. Alvare, Esq. On Behalf of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops,  Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities

Subcommittee on the Constitution

U.S. House of Representatives

March 21, 1996

Good morning and thank you for this opportunity to testify. I have been asked to help you consider the testimony you have heard today from within a moral framework.

The most important testimony concerning partial birth abortion that has been presented to you today concerns the accurate medical description of what happens during this procedure. In sum, this procedure is designed such that an abortionist kills a human infant who is partially delivered outside of his or her mother's womb. The infant is not directly anesthetized to prevent pain. Certainly, the infant is not anesthetized to the point of death in the womb prior to his or her partial delivery outside of the mother's body. Once so delivered, according to the writings of one prominent practitioner of this method, Dr. Martin Haskell, the infant is killed by inserting a pair of sharp curved scissors into the base of the child's skill. The scissors are then spread wide enough to insert a catheter to suction out the contents of the skull before the head is collapsed and the infant fully delivered outside of the mother.

One of the clearest and most compelling guides to the morality of any act is the physical structure of the act itself. The above description of the partial birth abortion speaks loudly of its own immorality. The partial birth procedure is nothing other than the direct killing of an innocent human being, an act deemed immoral and socially unacceptable through time and across continents. Furthermore, a number of factors make it particularly frightening that this kind of killing could legally continue -- let alone be knowingly tolerated or even supported by some -- in a society that hopes to have any pretensions about human rights.

First, the partial birth abortion kills the most defenseless among us. By virtue of their youth, their physical weakness, their legal powerlessness, and in some cases, their physical disability, the victims of partial birth abortion deserve our most strenuous protection, not one of the most gruesome forms of death the abortion industry has to offer. Particularly in a country that prides itself on offering opportunity for the weakest among us, the partial birth abortion is a violation of everything we stand for.

Second, the partial birth abortion bears a far greater resemblance to infanticide than it does even to abortion. No reasonable person can disagree, once he or she has read a description or seen an accurate drawing of the partial-birth abortion method: it is one-fifth abortion and four-fifths infanticide. It kills a child when 80% of his or her body is already outside the womb. And there should certainly be a moral and legal consensus in our country that infanticide is a crime and that it cannot be tolerated in a civilized society. This, the partial-birth abortion, is the slippery slope many have warned of for years. It was abortion advocates who established the moment of "birth," the moment the child begins to exit the mother's womb, as the dividing line between legal and illegal destruction of human life. In fact, when abortion advocates attacked every other provision of the Texas abortion law in Roe v. Wade, the one provision they did not attack was a criminal ban on the killing of a child who had begun to leave the womb. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 117n. 1(1973). In fact, that law remains on the books in Texas today. But the pro-life community warned that it would not be long before the same arguments used to justify killng the unborn would be used to justify killing born humans. And for a time,the Supreme Court itself slid a considerable distance down that slope, invalidating even laws requiring a physician to care for children who have survived an abortion attempt. Noting this trend, one commentator said that the Court had begun to treat the event of birth "as somewhat like a state bordcr, which an officer of one jurisdiction may disregard if he is following a fugitive in hot pursuit." (James Burtchaell, "How Much is A Child Worth?: From Abortion to Infanticide," in Rachel Weeping and Other Essays on Abortion (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel 1982) p.288). Such extremism has since been tempered by the Court in Webster and Casey -- but its spirit lives on among the leaders of the legal abortion movement and members of the abortion industry. If partial-birth abortions remain legal, if this Congress allows them to continue, what could be next on this slippery slope? Killing children who have emerged from the womb 3 or 4 inches more? That is, children completely born, but still attached by an umbilical cord? Killing them a few minutes after complete birth? Or maybe a few hours later, when a doctor has had the opportunity to determine if the child suffers any disabilities? All of these have already been suggested by scholarly writers who support late-term abortions.

Opponents of this bill keep asking whether enacting it would just be the first step in an effort to ban all abortions. But the real question should be whether allowing this procedure would serve as a step toward legalized infanticide?

Third, allowing the continued practice partial birth abortions will harm the common good. Legally unchecked, the practice of partial birth abortion is spreading. Practitioners like Dr. James McMahon acknowledged that he was teaching other doctors to perform partial-birth abortions. The National Abortion Federation noted in the New York Times that more doctors are recently reporting using this method. One doctor quoted said that not only has he done it and taught it for the last 1O years, but he knows doctors in other cities that do the same. (Tamar Lewin, "Wider Impact is Foreseen for Bill to Ban Type of Abortion," The New York Times, Nov. 6, 1995, p.A1O).

There is an old axiom that those who harm fellow human beings end up doing more harm to themselves: "The handle is more dangerous than the sword." By shutting themselves off from others' humanity, they end up dehumanizing themselves. If doctors are allowed or even encouraged to perform partial-birth abortions -- if Americans, now exposed to them through this very legislative debate, are told that they must accept them as legal -- one of the ultimate consequences will be a futher denigration of the value of human life. The common good will suffer. A fourth reason the partial birth procedure is a particularly heinous procedure is due to its pure physical brutality. Forcibly dragging the greater part of the infant's body out of the womb with forceps. Stabbing the head. Suctioning it. The very violence of each of these is an assault upon the humanity of the victim, as well as upon the humanity of every doctor and nurse who performs or witnesses it. Fifth and finally, the partial birth procedure is worthy of special condemnation because of the cynicism of its inventors in calculating how to skirt the law against homicide. Knowing that if an intact child were fully delivered and then killed, homicide statutes could be applied, abortioruists like Dr. Haskell calculated how to leave some part of the child inside his or her mother to attempt to gain the protection of Roe v. Wade. Such cynical manipulation of the law ought not to be allowed.

Turning to the attempts by advocates of partial birth abortion to overcome the immorality of the act with anecdotal examples. The testimony we have heard today from mothers who have undergone partial-birth abortions has been quite emotional. It rightly elicits from us emotional sympathy for the extremely difficult situations faced by women struck by tragedy late in a pregnancy. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that such a situation could justify a particularly brutal kind of killing of the innocent.

One preliminary point here. It is important to remember that personal testimony about an abortion procedure is relevant to the bill at issue today only if it involves a child who was alive at the time it was partially delivered outside of the mother and then killed. To the extent that it is true that Ms. Costello's baby died in the womb from anesthesia or any other cause, of course, her testimony bears no relevance to the procedure at issue today.

To the extent that Ms. Costello may have been misled, and actually did undergo the procedure to be banned by H.R. 1833, still, her testimony could never change the need for the passage of H.R. 1833. For the act of deliberately killing a vulnerable infant is wrong no matter how sad the mother is about requesting the procedure, no matter how strongly she feels that it is better for a human being to die this way than, for example, to die naturally in the arms of his or her family. The moral culpability or lack of culpability of the one who requests the partial birth abortion cannot transform the killing itself from wrong to right.

And H.R. 1833 is only about judging the act itself, not the person. It is most definitely not about judging Ms. Costello's or any other woman's culpability. It is the proper place of law in society to reflect our collective judgments about what is objectively wrong. And partial birth abortions, no matter the motivations which lead to them, are objectively cruel to the victims, objectively wrong.

We cannot, in particular, make this wrong act right by asserting that the victim was disabled. Is it not enough that the disabled struggle every day in our country with prejudices large and small? Could Congress ever be in the position of telling them that partial birth abortions would be allowed to continue on the strength of testimony that they are particularly necessary to make it easier for the parents of disabled children to say "goodbye" to their children because they leave the infant body in one piece instead of the many pieces produced by alternative kinds of abortions? Although we all wish to relieve as much pain as we can for a parent suffering at the prospect of a disabled or imminently dying child, we can never say this.

Thank you again for this opportunity to present testimony today and to clarify the moral questions raised by the partial birth abortion procedure.