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The controversy surrounding D&X is not like other abortion debates, because D&X is no ordinary abortion. One strains to be able to understand the procedure in civilized terms. Partial-birth abortion make irrefutable what has been obvious to so many for a long time.

What is partial-birth abortion? To help answer that question for the legislature, Representative Canady presented Congress with five simple line drawings. They were captioned by seven brief, precise sentences describing the process.

Dr. Haskell, who as of 1992 had already performed over 700 of these abortions, said the drawings were accurate "from a technical point of view."1 The captions were virtually identical to a description of D&X abortions published in the LA Times, June 16, 1995.

The National Abortion Federation (NAF), however, called the material "sensationalized drawings and graphic language to attempt to enflame opposition to this surgery."2

Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) actually tried to prohibit the lawmakers from seeing the sketches during public, congressional debate on HR 1833.

One LA Times columnist claimed the procedure "has been successfully and inflammatorily mischaracterized as the heartless slaying of the helpless with scissors jabs to the skull and a sucking out of the brains."3

A Clear, Medical Description

To settle the controversy, I refer now to a description from Dr. Martin Haskell's own instruction manual, "Dilation and Extraction for Late Second Trimester Abortion." It was included in presentation materials of the National Abortion Federation (notice this is a powerful, pro-abortion organization), entitled "Second Trimester Abortion: From Every Angle," pages 30-31. This material was distributed at the NAF Fall Risk Management Seminar, held September 13-14, 1992, in Dallas, Texas.

"The surgeon introduces a large grasping forceps, such as a Bierer or Hern, through the vaginal and cervical canals into the corpus of the uterus.... When the instrument appears on the sonogram screen, the surgeon is able to open and close its jaws to firmly and reliably grasp a lower extremity. The surgeon then applies firm traction to the instrument causing aversion of the fetus (if necessary) and pulls the extremity into the vagina....

"With a lower extremity in the vagina, the surgeon uses his fingers to deliver the opposite lower extremity, then the torso, the shoulders and the upper extremities.

"The skull lodges at the internal cervical [opening]....The fetus is oriented dorsum or spine up. At this point, the right-handed surgeon slides the fingers of the left hand along the back of the fetus and 'hooks' the shoulders of the fetus with the index and ring fingers (palm down)....

"While maintaining this tension, lifting the cervix and applying traction to the shoulders with the fingers of the left hand, the surgeon takes a pair of blunt curved Metzenbaum scissors in the right hand. He carefully advances the tip, curved down, along the spine and under his middle finger until he feels it contact the base of the skull under the tip of his middle finger.

"...The surgeon then forces the scissors into the base of the skull or into foramen magnum. Having safely entered the skull, he spreads the scissors to enlarge the opening.

"The surgeon removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents. With the catheter still in place, he applies traction to the fetus, removing it completely from the patient."

This procedure is almost never done before viability.4 By Haskell's own admission, two thirds of the children are still alive when he "forces the scissors into the base of the skull." He adds, "When I do the instrumentation on the skull [thrusting the scissors into the cranium]...it destroys the brain sufficiently so that even if it (the fetus) falls out at that point, it's definitely not alive."5

D&X is Not "Surgery"

One strains to be able to understand this procedure in civilized terms. There's no need to resort to "sensationalized drawings and graphic language." Dr. Haskell's description speaks for itself.

This procedure cannot be sanitized or legitimized by calling it "surgery," as the NAF repeatedly does. Partial-birth abortions are not surgery. Webster's New World International Dictionary defines surgery as "the treatment of disease, injury, or deformity by manual or instrumental operations, as the removal of diseased parts or tissue by cutting."

First, there is no disease or injury; this is a pregnancy, not a sickness. Indeed, there may be deformity in the child, but the D&X procedure does not remove the deformity; it removes the child. Second, the only cutting done is in the back of the baby's skull to end its short life, not to treat its defect.

Surgery removes a disease, an injury, or a deformity; an abortion removes a child. The use of this term treats a baby like a disease.

Nothing Hidden

Partial-birth abortions make irrefutable what has been obvious to many for a long time: abortion brutally kills a human child. You can no longer get away with distracting terms like "fetus" or "conceptus."

Nothing is hidden in D&X abortion. This is not a piece of tissue or a mere part of a woman's body. This is a little boy or girl dangling between the legs of its mother. You can clearly see its sexual organs, male or female. It squirms and kicks. Its hands open and close, grasping for something to hang onto, until the moment when the doctor's instrument pierces the back of its skull. Then, of course, everything goes limp, because the baby is dead.

Brenda Pratt Shafer, a registered nurse from Dayton Ohio, accepted assignment to Dr. Haskell's clinic because she was "strongly pro-choice." In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, nurse Shafer described the end of life for one six-month-old "fetus."

"[Dr. Haskell] delivered the baby's body and the arms--everything but the head....The baby's little fingers were clasping and unclasping, and his feet were kicking. Then the doctor stuck the scissors through the back of his head, and the baby's arms jerked out in a flinch, a startle reaction, like a baby does when he thinks that he might fall....[Then] the baby was completely limp....After I left that day, I never came back."6

That child, a baby boy, had Down's Syndrome. The babies in the other two abortions she assisted in that day were perfectly healthy, she testified.

Amazing Justifications

The things people say to justify D&X are amazing. Some of the attempts are more sophisticated, and I'll speak to them in the next section, but some defy belief.

One woman told a radio interviewer that she preferred partial-birth abortion because the baby was delivered whole and not chopped up into pieces. It gave her the opportunity to say good-bye. As the NAF material puts it, "Removing the fetus intact meant that the family can see it, hold it, and mourn their loss."7

Another said it's the most "humane" way for the child itself. I thought this was an odd thing to say for a couple of reasons.

First, the question at hand is the morality of killing the child, not the manner of the killing. Our concern is not finding the best way to take a child's, but whether it's right to dispose of children at all.

Does it somehow strengthen a killer's legal defense because it took one shot to the back of the head to dispatch his victim? Imagine the appeal: "Your Honor, it was the most humane way; he didn't feel a thing."

A second thought occurs to me, though. If this is the most humane way for the baby, what then of the morality of other abortions that are not so humane? Doesn't this automatically call into question other more "inhumane" forms of abortion?

What of the mother, who is conscious during the whole gruesome procedure? What must she be thinking as she watches her newborn child hanging between her legs? It's not crying yet, because its head is still in her vagina, though it would cry, in most cases, if it was simply given some air.

What must be going through her mind as she watches the doctor methodically suction out the brain tissue of her own flesh and blood--and in some cases remove his vital organs--while he's still alive, then gives one last tug to expel the baby's shapeless head and lifeless body?

Ignoring the Obvious

What goes through your mind when you contemplate the reality of this procedure? Sometimes it's possible to talk about an issue in the sterility of a classroom or a radio talk show. When we get a clear, unambiguous look at the particular thing we're discussing, though, words of justification fail us.

There is a moral quality to partial-birth abortion that is self-evident. This is why Pat Schroeder doesn't want line drawings displayed in Congress. All you have to do is picture it and you know immediately what's going on. Yet it's a medical procedure being performed on a regular basis, protected by the laws of our government.

Why don't more people see this? Because of our moral confusion. We're dizzy with the speed of our own moral decline.


1. Diane M. Gianelli, "Shock Tactic Ads Target Late-Term Abortion Procedure," American Medical News, AMA, July 5, 1993, p. 21.

2. National Abortion Federation, "Later Abortions: Questions and Answers," The Abortion Rights Activist, p. 1.

3. Robin Abcarian, "Lifesaving Option or Criminal Conduct?", LA Times, Nov. 26, 1995, p. E-1.

4. Douglas Johnson, "Pro-Aborts Fight Bill to Ban Partial-Birth Abortion," National Right to Life Committee, p. 2.

5. Dayton News, interview, Dec. 10, 1989.

6. NRLC brief, "Senate Hearing Explodes Pro-Abortion Misinformation About Partial-Birth Abortions," Nov. 28, 1995, p. 1.

7. NAF, "Later Abortions: Questions and Answers," p. 2.

Article | Bio-Ethics
Mar 29, 2013
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