Partial-Birth Abortion Is Not About Abortion

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/30/2013

When we justify the killing of a fully human child because of severe, congenital defect, we are not making a case for abortion; we’re promoting something much more chilling. Even the mothers involved know what’s going on.

If there is no good reason to allow partial-birth abortion, then why the intense resistance? Why is there so much confusion on this? Why do so many—mothers, doctors, Senators, members of Congress—accept such bad reasons for this barbaric practice?

As I turned this question over in my mind, I realized in a flash of insight why people don’t see the obvious. They misunderstand this procedure—partial-birth abortion, D&X abortion—because of one very misleading term: abortion.

Abortion is sacred to many in this country. “Abortion is a woman’s Constitutional right, therefore all abortions must be defended,” you’ll hear. “Make one type of abortion illegal and the dominoes begin to fall,” others warn.

There’s a problem, though. Simply calling a procedure an abortion doesn’t make it one. A thing is what it is, regardless of the name used for it. Language may change perception, but it doesn’t change the thing itself.

An abortion is what happens to a child within the womb of its mother. This is clear from every court case dealing with the issue. In partial-birth abortion, however, the delivery is 85% complete. The child is not on the inside of its mother when it’s killed; it’s on the outside.

If partial-birth abortion is not really an abortion, then what is it? Let me ask a question. What is it called when a newborn child is killed outside the womb? It’s not called an abortion; it’s called infanticide. The chilling truth is this: Partial-birth abortion is not really abortion; it’s infanticide. It’s the killing of an innocent human child outside his mother’s body, often solely because of the baby’s handicap.

Even the Mothers Know

Coreen Costello had a partial-birth abortion last spring, midway through her third trimester. In her testimony before the Senate she said, “Our darling little girl was going to die.”1 Why was her little girl going to die? Because she had a lethal neurological disorder, and therefore Mrs. Costello, a Christian pro-lifer, chose a D&X abortion.

Please, do not mistake the argument here: “‘We must kill our darling little girl.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because she’s severely handicapped and is going to die anyway.’” Even if you sympathize with Coreen’s reasons, realize this is not an argument for abortion; it’s an argument for infanticide. When you justify the killing of a human child because of a severe, congenital defect, you are making a case for euthanasia, not abortion.

(In Mrs. Costello’s case, it’s not clear she even had a partial-birth abortion as defined in HR 1833. In a moving account distributed nationwide by the New York Times News Service, Costello claims her pregnancy was life-threatening, and that the anesthesia killed the baby before delivery. Both conditions would exempt her from the restrictions of this bill. Nevertheless, my point still stands. Here is a clear admission of the full humanity of the child before its birth. Costello even refers to her little girl by name, Katherine Grace.)2

Both of the women I heard in radio discussions said they held their babies and sang to them after their partial-birth abortions. Why would a mother gently cuddle the dead body of her aborted child? Would she cradle her extracted tonsils and sing softly to them? Would she affectionately name her spleen after it’s been surgically removed from her body? “This is different,” she’ll tell you. “It’s my baby.”

This is a tacit admission that these children were human beings. If the baby’s body is a human corpse after the abortion, then how can one ever deny the baby was a human child before it was killed?

Do you know what this tells us? Their actions and their words prove they’re talking about taking the life of a fully human baby. It tells us that even the mothers know that human children are being killed because of their handicap. Do you know what you call that? You don’t call it abortion; you call it infanticide.

Changing Tactics

Pro-abortionists know this. Graham Walker of the Orange County Register points out, “Schroeder and Boxer didn’t stick to pro-choice logic. They didn’t oppose the criminalization bill on the grounds that a woman’s reason for choosing an abortion is no business of anyone’s except the woman and possibly her doctor. Instead, they opposed the bill on the grounds that the reasons women elect this particular abortion procedure are ‘good’ reasons, not frivolous ones.”3

Since Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the courts have spoken. They have not allowed any meaningful restriction on any kind of abortion. Abortion is a matter of privacy and choice. Period.

If D&X is really an abortion, then why any further defense or justification? Here’s why: the same action taken on the same baby at the same stage of development would be felony infanticide if the child moved a mere three inches further down the birth canal.

Dr. Pamela Smith of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago told the House Judiciary Committee, “The surgeon must move quickly to insure that the baby does not manage to move the inches that are legally required to transform its status from one of an abortus to that of a living human child.”4

Pro-abortionists know that D&X is not a standard abortion, so the standard justifications—a woman’s right to privacy or her right to choose—don’t work. I have yet to hear the challenge, “You can’t tell me what I can do with my own body,” applied to partial-birth abortion.

The emerging baby is clearly not her body—not a piece of tissue, or a “conceptus,” or even a fetus—but a child’s body coming forth from hers. It’s her son or daughter, squirming and writhing, struggling to complete its entry into the outside world.

Pro-abortionists know they need stronger justification, so they switch to arguments traditionally used to defend euthanasia. Everybody knows intuitively what’s going on here. The mother knows. The doctors and nurses know. Pro-abortionists know. But it doesn’t seem all that bad.

We listen to heart-rending personal anecdotes by anguished moms who desperately wanted their babies, but something went wrong. Moved with emotion we concede, “Well, I can understand her decision. I’d do the same thing myself.” Coreen Costello said, “[I] always believed abortion was wrong. Then I had one.”5

Such personal glimpses are moving, even compelling, but unfortunately cause us to lose sight of the real question at hand: How ought we treat physically imperfect children, even if they are destined to die soon after birth?

The answer now being given is the wrong one and increases the velocity of our moral decline as we slide further down the slippery slope.

Slipping Down the Slope

Ethics makes a distinction between two kinds of slippery slopes. The “causal slippery slope” is like a line of dominoes falling. An action that might be morally benign in itself, leads to something else that’s immoral, casting a shadow on the first. For example, if pornography causes violence against women, then pornography may be morally suspect.

The second is called a “logical slippery slope.” When one thing is immoral, and a second is logically similar in a morally relevant way, the moral quality of the one slips over into the other. Murder is immoral, and some think capital punishment is similar enough to murder to make capital punishment immoral too. That’s how it works.

A logical slippery slope can slip in either direction. If you have a morally acceptable thing, and something else is logically similar to it, then arguably the second thing becomes morally acceptable, too.

Judith Jarvis Thompson justifies abortion using a logical slippery slope tactic in her famous argument, “A Defense of Abortion.”6 Thompson describes a woman surgically connected, against her will, to a world-famous violinist who has a lethal kidney ailment. The connection is temporary—only nine months—and is necessary to save his life.

In Thompson’s view, the woman is morally justified to disconnect the violinist even though he’ll die. Abortion is a meaningful parallel to unplugging the violinist, according to Thompson. Therefore, it’s moral to abort a child, even if he or she is a fully human person, just like the violinist. The moral acceptability of the first act, the argument goes, “slips” over into the second act.

The Real Reason

The partial-birth abortion question places America at a critical juncture in the sanctity of life debate. Which way will we slide?

When you start with the view that abortion is a sacred right, then by reason of a logical slippery slope, you must argue for anything called abortion. “All abortions ought to be legal. D&X is an abortion. Therefore, D&X ought to be legal, too.” Slide a bit further and it looks like this: “If partial-birth abortion is moral, and partial-birth abortion is essentially the same as infanticide, then infanticide must be moral, too.”

We could, however, regain our moral sanity and slide the other way. If this atrocity is made illegal, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the very same thing is happening out of sight inside the womb in every late-term abortion. If the first is morally grotesque and illegal, then the second is grotesque and should be illegal, too.

Pro-abortionists know this, and that’s why they’re fighting so hard. They want freedom of choice at any cost, regardless of the moral consequences. When they raise the alarm, “This is the first step towards making all abortions illegal!”, we finally have their real objection to HR 1833.

It’s a legitimate fear. Once one realizes D&X abortions are clearly immoral, it’s going to be hard to justify any late-term abortion. On the other hand, if it’s clear that a living human child is being butchered, yet D&X remains legal simply because abortion is legal, then even the hardiest libertarians should realize there’s something terribly wrong with the current state of abortion law.

No Clear Moral Intuitions

The question we now face is, “Which way will we slip?”

Will we admit D&X is really infanticide by another name? Will we then recognize that any late term abortion under cover of the mother’s womb is enough like D&X to be immoral, too? If partial-birth abortion is de facto infanticide, what meaningful moral distinction is there between infanticide and any other late-term abortions? They all destroy a little human being.

Or will we slide the other way? Will the public, will the Congress, will the President admit that pro-lifers are right (that partial-birth abortions are virtual infanticide), but then conclude that since abortion is moral—and here we slip the other way—then infanticide must be moral, too?

We can go either way. That’s why we’re at such a critical juncture.

Don’t count on much help from clear-case examples, either. These depend for their force on having a fairly robust moral intuition intact to begin with. If one asked, “Would we do this to a two-week-old child?”, many would shrug their shoulders and say, “Why not? Take the baby’s life right now and use its organs for somebody else.”

Even as I write, the LA Times features a letter from Dr. Charles Plows, Chair of the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs of the American Medical Association. He wants the liberty to harvest organs from children born anencephalic, missing most of their cerebral cortex.

Dr. Plows calls it a “life saving” policy considering the “numbers of infants born with vital organs that are incapable of sustaining life who are dying because of the lack of donors...”7 But the donors he has in mind are living children who would be euthanized, sacrificed for their body parts.

Of course, you’ll never hear any put it that way. You won’t hear the word infanticide. Instead, you’ll hear about the safest late-term abortion technique yet: deliver the baby completely, then kill it.

What kind of abortion is this, you ask, where the doctor delivers the child before taking her life? Why, it’s a post-natal abortion, of course.

The Ostrich Fallacy

This debate is like the proverbial ostrich hiding its head in the sand, blocking out the world to escape trouble. We use the illustration to discredit someone who won’t see the obvious. He is a fool who, like the ostrich, thinks the real world disappears when his head is covered and his eyes are closed.

Those defending partial-birth abortions want to define the real world of the child by where its head is located. But how much of a newborn’s body must be inside the mother to justify killing it? The baby’s arm? His little fist? Why not just one finger?

If the baby was a bird, we’d call this stupid. Instead, it’s considered sound ethics. Those who hold this view are themselves sticking their heads in the sand. They ignore what’s obvious to anyone who has his eyes open: D&X abortion is infanticide with the baby’s head covered.