Partial Birth Abortion: The Writing on the Wall

by Susan E. Wills

I keep a file in my office marked "WEIRDNESS." This is a repository for bizarre news clippings—topics unimaginable a decade ago except as the stuff of science fiction or horror: aborted human embryos sold as health food in China; a custody battle over a dead man's frozen sperm; a proposal to harvest ovaries from aborted baby girls so their eggs can be used to create embryos for experimentation; and Jack Kevorkian's uncanny ability to elude criminal sanctions for assisting over four dozen suicides.

Partial-birth abortion seemed at first a likely candidate for the WEIRDNESS file. But no longer. Nothing in these other precedents could prepare us for a horror becoming as commonplace as partial-birth abortion.

Nor do these precedents prepare one for the political situation at hand, in which one third of the U.S. Senate and 136 Members of the U.S. House, as well as the President and Vice President of the United States, steadfastly defend a form of infanticide so brutal that it should instantly provoke universal condemnation.

How is it possible that a nation conceived in lofty ideals and respect for the God-given rights of human beings allows helpless infants to be killed in this way? Perhaps the answer lies in our society's unwillingness to look at objective reality, our tendency to reject moral absolutes, and ultimately, our rejection of God.

For decades, about half of Americans have been vaguely supportive of "choice." Most weighed what they thought of as an undifferentiated mass of cells against the alleged maternal physical and psychological threats that they assumed were always factors in a woman's abortion decision. Partial-birth abortion has stripped away such delusions and presented an undeniable moment of truth. It lets us see clearly the truth of what abortion is.

The abortion license achieved support and legality through lies and ignorance about the number of illegal abortions and associated maternal deaths, about the development and humanity of the unborn child, about the circumstances which lead women to abortion, and even about the meaning of the U.S. Constitution.

The abortion industry has flourished through lies and ignorance about the casual use of abortion as a method of birth control, its availability in the final months of pregnancy, the brutal methods of killing, the physical injuries and deaths among women caused by legal abortion, the long-lasting emotional turmoil experienced by many women, and the number of abortions, especially in the latter stages of pregnancy.

In 1970, Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed:

Let us not forget that violence does not and cannot flourish by itself; it is inevitably intertwined with lying. Between them there is the closest, the most profound and natural bond: nothing screens violence except lies, and the only way lies can hold out is by violence.

The more odious the violence, the greater the deceit is needed to justify it. Therefore, the defense of partial-birth abortion has required an inexhaustible store of lies.

So Many Lies, So Little Time

Although apparently a well-kept secret within the abortion community for over a decade, partial-birth abortion first came to most people's attention in 1993. That is when a paper by Dr. Martin Haskell of Ohio, delivered at a September 1992 meeting of the National Abortion Federation (NAF), became public. Haskell gave the attending abortion clinic owners and personnel step-by-step instructions for performing a partial-birth abortion. Introducing forceps into the partially-dilated cervix, the doctor turns the baby into a breech position, grabs a leg and pulls the entire baby, except for the head, through the birth canal and outside the mother's body. He then stabs the baby at the base of the skull with Metzenbaum scissors, "spreads the scissors to enlarge the opening. ...removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents." This last step collapses the skull and delivery of the now-dead child is completed.

Practitioners coined various terms to describe the procedure which Congress defined as:

An abortion in which the person performing the abortion partially vaginally delivers a living fetus before killing the fetus and completing the delivery. (H.R. 1122, 5.6)

The term "partial-birth abortion" and this definition meet the Constitutional requirement for clarity in statutes describing criminal offenses.

Crunching the Numbers

"There is only a handful of these done every year," quoth Rep. Patricia Schroeder [1]. The abortion industry groups insisted on a total annual figure of "about 500" cases. For two years, the media (with rare exceptions) repeated the abortion lobby's claim of "extremely rare" and "fewer than 500 a year." Even that is appalling, for as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) pointed out, "it is infanticide, and one would be too many." Yet the true toll is at least five times that, and possibly far higher.

Two doctors in Englewood, New Jersey told a reporter that they perform 3,000 to 5,000 post-20-week abortions each year, "of which at least half are by intact dilation and evacuation."[2] The same article mentions five other unnamed doctors in metropolitan New York City who do partial-birth abortions, one of whom has been teaching the procedure at "two prestigious teaching hospitals" since 1981. Dr. William Rashbaum of New York City admits that he has performed 19,000 late-term procedures and that he and his colleagues have used the partial-birth technique "routinely since 1979." Dr. Martin Ruddock of Ohio told a reporter that he uses the method, but he declined to say how often. The late Dr. James McMahon had done thousands and his partner is likely continuing the practice. It is fair to say that the accumulated evidence only hints at the enormity of this evil.

A Cure for 'Flawed' Fetuses

When and under what circumstances are partial-birth abortions performed? The abortion lobby tells us only late in pregnancy, when a "wanted pregnancy has gone tragically awry" by the discovery of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life ("monsters" is how Betty Friedan describes such children) or when the mother's life, health and future fertility are at risk. The only thing gone tragically awry here is any sense of truth.

Practitioners tell a different story. The vast majority occur in the 20 to 24 week range (mid- to late-second trimester). In this period, Dr. Haskell estimates that 80% of his procedures are "purely elective." One New Jersey doctor explained: "We have an occasional amnio abnormality, but it's a minuscule amount. Most are Medicaid patients ... and most are for elective, not medical, reasons: people who didn't realize, or didn't care, how far along they were. Most were teenagers."

Quiet! Spin-Doctors at Work

The deceptions concerning severely impaired babies enjoyed strong play in the media for more than a year, despite qualms in some circles that this rationale cut a bit too close to condoning euthanasia for the disabled. Why stop at birth, after all, if disabilities are discovered only after delivery? As the public began to see where this was leading, the focus of the arguments shifted back to the mother. Written advice to abortion advocacy groups from one of their consulting firms outlined a new strategy: Avoid discussing the following: (1) the health and condition of the fetus, because "voters believe that this procedure, no matter what we call it, kills an infant. We cannot get around this basic belief"; (2) how often the procedure is used, because "voters believe that even one time is too many"; and (3) the procedure itself, because it "IS gruesome. There is no way to make it pleasant to voters, or even only distasteful." Instead, the firm recommended they stick to this message: "late abortion is a medically necessary procedure to save the life and health of the mother." The difficulty is that no part of this sentence is true.

Is partial-birth abortion ever necessary? Without it, as President Clinton claims, will women's bodies "be ripped to shreds and you could never have another baby"? The straightforward answer—given by physicians—is no, it is never necessary.

Former surgeon general C. Everett Koop and more than 500 physicians who joined the Physicians' Ad Hoc Coalition for Truth (PHACT), a group formed solely to correct the "medical" lies and distortions in this debate, have testified before Congress and in state legislative bodies, have appeared on TV and radio, and have penned editorials and public statements to set the record straight. There is no medical necessity, no medical indication, for ever partially delivering a child and then killing the child.

This, PHACT doctors have explained, is not an emergency procedure to save a mother's life. Mechanical dilation of the cervix takes up to three days. That alone can cause cervical incompetence, a major threat to subsequent pregnancies, and infection, a leading cause of infertility. Turning the baby into a breech position, the forceps-aided breech delivery (abandoned as risky by the obstetrical community years ago), the possibility of producing shards of bone when stabbing the child's head which can puncture the mother, all carry enormous risks: placental abruption, amniotic fluid embolism, cervical incompetence, uterine/vaginal laceration and hemorrhaging, most of which are potentially life-threatening.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of the abortion industry, reports that the rate of maternal death for women having an abortion at 21 weeks' gestation or later is more than twice the maternal death rate in childbirth. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reports 15 to 16 weeks' gestation as the point at which abortion becomes more dangerous than childbirth [3].

So, if partial-birth abortion is dangerous for the mother and particularly inhumane to the child, cui bono? The answer: the abortionist. It ensures a fast (for the doctor) delivery of a dead baby, in an unregulated, un-peer-reviewed out-patient setting by a doctor who needs no special expertise in obstetrics.

If a mother's life or health actually depended on being separated from her child after 20 weeks' gestation, the baby can be delivered alive, and be given the best medical care available to save her life. At 23 weeks' gestation, one in four babies survive; a week later, one in three survive, and at 25 weeks—still a remarkable 15 weeks before full term—the survival rate is 54%. When asked by a reporter why he did not dilate the cervix a bit further and remove the baby alive, Dr. Haskell explained: With any further dilation, the "fetus could just fall out. But that's not really the point. The point here is you're attempting to do an abortion ... not to see how do I manipulate the situation so that I get a live birth instead."

This brings us to the granddaddy of lies, the "health" exception in Roe v. Wade's companion case, Doe v. Bolton. Some 70% of Americans believe that Roe, while "legalizing" abortion in the first trimester, allowed states to ban abortions in the third trimester. Certain members of Congress insist there is no need to ban partial-birth abortion because, they say, 40 states and the District of Columbia ban third trimester abortions already unless the mother's life or health are at stake. Indeed, Roe permits a ban on abortion "after viability ... except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother." At the time of the decision (1973), the Court assumed viability began about the third trimester. What garners no attention is how the Supreme Court defined "health" in the context of abortion: "all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the woman's age—relevant to the well-being of the patient" (Doe v. Bolton). Thus, if the woman is too young, too old, unmarried, depressed, distraught, whatever, that qualifies as a "health" reason.

President Clinton and others who support partial-birth abortion contend that an exception for "health" be written into the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. But they ignore two crucial points. First, the Supreme Court in Roe specifically declined (in footnote 1) to rule on the constitutionality of that section of the Texas Penal Code which makes it a crime to "destroy the vitality of a child in a state of being born and before actual birth, which child would otherwise have been born alive."[4] Thus, partial-birth abortion is beyond the scope of Roe. Second, it is ludicrous to assert that a health exception needs to be carved out to permit a procedure which the medical community finds hazardous to women's health.

The Writing on the Wall

The debate about partial-birth abortion has, for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, caused people to look squarely at abortion—what it is, how it is done, and its impact on individuals and society.

How did it happen that falsehoods were allowed to flourish alongside of truth—and nearly choke it off—for decades, notwithstanding incontrovertible scientific evidence of the humanity of the unborn child?

The media deserves some of the blame. For years it provided indispensable support to abortion by muffling or ignoring the radical nature of the 1973 Supreme Court decisions and by recounting endlessly the false notion that the Court legalized abortion only "in the first three months of pregnancy." This reluctance to investigate and expose any information detrimental to abortion "rights," continued to be evident in their coverage of partial-birth abortion.

Leaders of the pro-choice movement deserve most of the blame for the dissemination of falsehoods about abortion. Even among those who wholeheartedly support abortion, there are a few who regret the deceit, who recognize at least some of its negative consequences. Feminist author Naomi Wolf takes to task the "pro-choice" movement for avoiding abortion reality in favor of euphemism-laden rhetoric. When their beliefs become entangled in "self-delusions, fibs and evasions," she warns, they risk becoming "callous, selfish and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of human life."[5]

Ron Fitzsimmons, head of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, has also urged abortion supporters to be more truthful in their advocacy. Admit, he admonishes, that their business is to kill and let the government and public decide the parameters, if any. If that were to happen, Mr. Fitzsimmons and his colleagues had better be prepared to downsize their operations.

Although the cultural elite of our nation remains firmly committed to abortion on demand, at the grassroots, it appears that the long era of "cognitive dissonance" concerning unborn children is beginning to pass away. This term describes a psychological conflict resulting from simultaneously holding incongruous beliefs and attitudes. If a pregnancy is "unwanted," the woman can discard the tissue in a morally-neutral medical procedure. If a baby is "wanted," the thrilled mom and dad celebrate the baby's every fetal milestone with the aid of sonograms and books on the miracle of life before birth.

Public acknowledgement of the truth of the unborn child's humanity are cropping up everywhere. Today, corrective surgery is being performed on tiny patients in utero. Juries are assigning value to unborn lives by bringing in manslaughter convictions and damage awards against, for example, careless drivers who cause accidents resulting in the death of the unborn child.

A number of prosecutions have been brought in the past two years involving the freedom of pregnant women to ingest alcohol and illegal drugs on the ground that such actions amount to child abuse. While the law is slowly changing, it is by no means settled. We still face the legal paradox where a pregnant woman can avoid prosecution for child abuse charges arising from her drug habit by killing that child outright in a legal abortion. "The law," as a Dicken's character once observed, "is an ass."

State legislatures have achieved impressive victories in passing pro-life legislation in the past four years. To date, eight states have passed laws banning partial-birth abortion. Twenty or more states have succeeded in passing parental notice and informed consent laws stricter than had earlier been possible.

The number and rate of abortions continue to decline each year. Planned Parenthood's clinics dropped to 900 (1995-96) from 938 (1994-95) and in 1995 the organization reported the lowest combined total of abortions (performed on-site plus referrals) in eight years.

These developments are the fruit of pro-life evangelization—thousands of personal conversations, thousands of small acts of kindness, as well as courageous public witness—undertaken by those in the pro-life movement to bring the Gospel of life to others. We can rejoice in this progress, but this is no time to relax our efforts. Millions of Americans, unable to see clearly the truth about the sanctity of human life, still fall prey to moral relativism and make choices devastating to themselves and to society.

Indeed, while he acknowledges the "enormous disparity between the powerful resources available to the forces promoting the 'culture of death' and the means at the disposal of those working for a 'culture of life and love.'"(Evangelium Vitae, 100) John Paul II reminds us that we can, indeed must, rely on the help of God. The Holy Father urges us to follow the example of Jesus, who showed us that "prayer and fasting are the most effective weapons against the forces of evil":

Let us therefore discover anew the humility and the courage to pray and fast so that power from on high will break down the walls of lies and deceit: the walls which conceal from the sight of so many of our brothers and sisters the evil of practices and laws which are hostile to life. May this same power turn their hearts to resolutions and goals inspired by the civilization of life and love.(EV, 100)

Mrs. Wills, an attorney and mother of six, is assistant director for program development, NCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.


  1. Congressional Record, Nov. 1, 1995, H. 11616.
  2. The Sunday Record (Bergen, NJ), Sept. 15, 1996, p.RO-4.
  3. Thorp, J.M. and Bowes, W.A. "Pro-Life Perinatologist--Paradox or Possibility?" The New England Journal of Medicine, April 30, 1992, p. 1217, 1218.
  4. 410 U.S. 113, 117, n.1 (1973).
  5. "Our Bodies, Our Souls," The New Republic, Oct. 16, 1995, 26.