Partial-Birth Abortion: Objections and Misunderstandings

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/30/2013

Objections to a ban on partial-birth abortion fall into three categories: the silly, the false, and the inconsequential. Here are the facts on each one.

Suggested defenses of partial-birth abortion usually fall into three categories. First, detractors say the legislation is unnecessary because the procedure is so rare. Second, D&X abortion is a vital medical option necessary to save the life of the mother. Third, the fetus dies even before the abortion takes place, so the procedure is morally benign.

Objection #1: The Procedure is Very Rare.

This was one of the first objections raised by Sam Donaldson on a recent broadcast of “This Week with David Brinkley.”1 He noted that only about 450 partial-birth abortions are done each year. Only two doctors (Haskell and McMahon) did the procedure, he added, and one of them (McMahon) was now dead. This is the same information quoted in National Abortion Foundation materials.2

Haskell and McMahon, however, are not the only doctors using this procedure. The New York Times, November 6, 1995, quoted a gynecologist at a New York teaching hospital who said, “Of course I use it, and I’ve taught it for the last 10 years... So do doctors in other cities.”3 Further, Haskell and McMahon have written on and promoted this technique for years (I quoted earlier from Haskell’s instruction manual).

Even if this objection was true, it hardly seems significant. George Will pointed out that two jumbo jets crashing would result in “only” 450 casualties, but who would minimize such a disaster?

This objection turns out to be silliness. If the fetus is nothing more than a blob of tissue, then a million abortions a day have no moral consequence. However, if these abortions kill innocent human children, then why ignore even a single, preventable death?

Another rare occurrence might bring this objection into focus. Since the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion on demand, there have been five killings of abortion providers. That’s “only” one dead every four and a half years. That was enough, however, to stimulate a barrage of legislation. Why should partial-birth abortion be different?

Objection #2: D&X Abortions May Save the Life of the Mother.

The National Abortion Federation literature states unequivocally, “Women seeking later abortions do so for very serious reasons. All abortions taking place in the third trimester are for reasons of serious fetal abnormality or a risk to the life of the woman”4 [emphasis in the original]. They cite as their source the Abortion Fact Book published in 1992 by the Allan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, and the NAF quarterly statistical reports of 1994.

But that’s not what the doctors who’ve performed most of these abortions say.

The American Medical News—the official newspaper of the AMA—documented Dr. Haskell’s forthright admission during a tape-recorded interview. “And I’ll be quite frank: most of my abortions are elective in that 20-24 week range.... In my particular case, probably 20% [of these abortions] are for genetic reasons. And the other 80% are purely elective.”5

Dr. McMahon voluntarily submitted to the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee a sample of 175 partial-birth abortions he performed. In its official report the committee notes that 22% of the total abortions were for reasons of depression, not protection of the mother’s life.6

Interestingly, even in the NAF material the reasons cited for why some doctors prefer this procedure have nothing to do with the life of the mother. It “prevents unnecessary bleeding and has a low complication rate. Reaction from the patients is positive [and] they found the surgery less painful and difficult than they expected.” Some families just “want a chance to say good-bye.”7

These may all be important considerations, everything being equal, but note that no doctor mentions threat to the mother’s life, even in the pro-abortion material. There’s a reason the doctors don’t emphasize it: there is no threat.

Dr. Pamela Smith, Director of Medical Education in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago, said, “There are absolutely no obstetrical situations encountered in this country which require a partially delivered human fetus to be destroyed to preserve the life of the mother.”8

In fact, breech births after the fashion of D&X are more dangerous. Partial-birth abortion is a variation of a breech-birth technique used by obstetricians to deliver a living child, often a twin.9 Ironically, this procedure has been largely replaced by Caesarean section, specifically because a c-section is safer.10

There’s a simpler way of dealing with this objection, though. Just ask, “If the law allowed this procedure when it was necessary to protect the mother’s life, would you drop your objection?” It does.

The Senate version of the bill, in Sec. 1531. (a), states, “This paragraph shall not apply to a partial-birth abortion that is necessary to save the life of a mother whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, illness, or injury, provided that no other medical procedure would suffice for that purpose.”

Breech delivery is risky. Standard delivery is the safest. D&X abortion does not protect the life of the mother. When there is an exception, HR 1833 permits a partial-birth abortion.

Objection #3: The Anesthesia Kills the Baby Before the Abortion Begins.

Robin Abcarian, defending D&X in her LA Times column, wrote, “[The mother] was given enough anesthesia and analgesic that her baby was dead before he was delivered.”11 A USA Today editorial on November 3, 1995, also claimed, “The fetus dies from an overdose of anesthesia given to its mother.”

Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Il.), Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, and Ellen Goodman in her widely syndicated column all made the same claim. Most depend on a statement Dr. McMahon made in a written submission to the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee on June 23, 1995.12

Such misinformation sent a shock wave through the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA). Dr. Norig Ellison, president of the 32,000 member organization, took heated exception with the claim before the Senate Judiciary Committee, November 17, 1995.

Dr. Ellison said McMahon’s statement is “entirely inaccurate.” He added, “I have not spoken with one anesthesiologist who agrees with Dr. McMahon’s conclusion, and in my judgment, it is contrary to scientific fact. It simply must not be allowed to stand.”13

Dr. Haskell knows from personal experience that the child is often alive during this procedure. Because of the misinformation circulating on this question, American Medical News has released a transcript of a taped conversation with him from 1993.

AMNews: Let’s talk first about whether or not the fetus is dead beforehand...

Haskell: No, it’s not. No, it’s really not.... In my case, probably about a third of those are definitely are [sic] dead before I actually start to remove the fetus. And probably the other two-thirds are not.14

Not only is the pro-abortion claim false; even if true it’s irrelevant to this legislation. In Sec. 1531. (a) (1) the legislation specifically defines a partial-birth abortion as, “an abortion in which the person performing the abortion partially vaginally delivers a living fetus before killing the fetus and completing the delivery” [emphasis added].

If the child is dead before delivery begins, then the abortion does not fall under the restrictions of this bill, so the point is moot. Simply put, if the child is dead, then the law does not apply. The procedure is allowed.

Silly, False, and Inconsequential

Let’s review the objections. The first one, that the procedure is extremely rare, is silly. Further, if it’s so rare, then why object to the ban? Other abortion procedures unchallenged by this law can accomplish the same end.

The second one, that this kind of abortion protects the life of the mother, fails on two counts. One, the amended bill provides for D&X when it’s the only thing that will save the mother. Two, such a circumstance almost never occurs. Other forms of legal abortion are safer. The breech birth required in a partial-birth abortion is much more dangerous for women than a normal birth. Ask any obstetrician.

The third one, that the baby is dead before the delivery, is inconsequential. If this was true (which it isn’t, in most cases), then the legislation simply wouldn’t apply.

Every objection to a ban on partial-birth abortion fails completely. Then why the vigorous resistance by pro-abortionists? Because there’s more at stake here than meets the eye. Partial-birth abortion is not just about abortion; it’s about much more.