by Gail Quinn
July 7, 2000
Instrumental disarticulation. Collapse of the skull. Fetal demise. Bones more rigid, dismemberment or other destructive procedure likely to be required.
Bad dialogue from a summer horror movie? No. These are the calculatingly clinical words found in Stenberg v. Carhart as the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court address various ways "to terminate a potential human life."
The Court's decision striking down Nebraska's ban on partial-birth abortion makes one shudder, as do the clinical details of killing little human beings. It creates a chill difficult to shake, and leaves you searching for logic or even a hint of humanity.
At the outset the Court says that the U.S. Constitution "offers basic protection to the woman's right to choose." Right to choose? The highest court in the land is now wallowing in the vacuous rhetoric of those who insist it is no matter of moment to kill a human being--in any way, even with great brutality--as long as the job is done before that human being is fully born. How long before that time limit is extended to barely born? Recently born? Not idle questions. Two U.S. Senators (Lautenberg of NJ and Feingold of WI) have said that if a child were to "slip out" alive during a partial-birth abortion, the mother and her doctor should be able to decide whether to let the child live or to kill her. And Nobel Prize winners James Watson and Francis Crick have suggested there be period of time after birth during which parents could decide whether to keep their baby or have it killed. They just differ on how much time.
In Stenberg the Court said Nebraska's law was unconstitutional because it lacked a "health exception" for the woman and because its description of the banned procedure might be confused with a dismemberment method of abortion. Yet on reading the majority opinion, it is not the least bit irrational to conclude that the Court struck down Nebraska's law simply because it will brook no threat, real or perceived, to an abortion liberty it created 28 years ago.
To arrive at its decision, the Court ignored the numerous physicians who had testified that partial-birth abortion is never medically necessary. It ignored the AMA's advice that it "is not good medicine." It ignored the fact that there are no studies to support a claim that partial-birth abortion is safe, much less safer than other methods of abortion. Instead the Court accepted as medical fact assertions made by the abortionist in the case--even as that same abortionist explained that he does the procedure, not out of concern for a woman's health, but whenever babies he plans to dismember in utero present in a breech position.
The Court said that if Nebraska's law banning partial-birth abortion were to stand, some time in the future doctors doing D&Es--dismemberment abortions--might have to "fear prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment." Thus, Nebraska's ban on partial-birth abortion would be "an undue burden upon a woman's right to make an abortion decision."
In his dissent, Justice Scalia noted that what constitutes an "undue burden" cannot be determined by simple legal reasoning or inquiry into fact. That is because it is "a value judgment, dependent upon how much one respects (or believes society ought to respect) the life of a partially delivered fetus, and how much one respects (or believes society ought to respect) the freedom of the woman who gave it life to kill it."
It is not potential human life at stake. It is living human beings. And the problem, the real problem is Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion throughout pregnancy. For more than 28 years Roe has cut across our nation's laws and social policies with utter contempt for innocent human lives. And as Stenberg makes clear, the Supreme Court is willing to expand Roe. It just did. And brought us to the precipice of infanticide.
One wonders how much deeper into the valley of death we can possibly sink. Together we have to help put things into reverse to bring about a culture of life. To do this, we must see to the demise of Roe v. Wade.
Gail Quinn is executive director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Washington, D.C.