by Helen Alvaré
August 21, 1998
News about partial birth abortion has been around for a long time now. So long, people start "tuning out." When this happens, when people fail to "go" with their gut instincts about the right thing to do right away -- like banning partial birth abortion -- the debate can get sidetracked by endless commentary. It becomes all too easy to forget or drown out our core moral instincts.
The ban on partial-birth abortion was introduced in Congress in 1995. Congress has cast seven votes on the matter, and the bill has been vetoed twice by President Clinton. Most people's initial and quite human reaction to learning about partial birth abortion was: "This cannot be." Even some leaders in the pro-life movement thought that a written eyewitness account of this procedure was so uniquely awful that it must be some ugly hoax, some Swiftian joke. But after the abortionist who invented it went public, abortion advocates threw out every argument they could concoct to slow the avalanche of disgust raining down on them.
Any argument would do, even multiple contradictory arguments made at the same time. (Their behavior reminded me of the title of a 1980's Hollywood movie about adolescents: "Say Anything".) They have said, for example: "It's not an abortion, just a procedure to remove already dead babies." But they also said: "It is performed on live babies, but they're not killed outside the mother, just anesthetized peacefully to death." They have said: "It's performed very rarely, only a few hundred times per year, and then only on women who must have this procedure or die, or lose their fertility." But they've also acknowledged: "It's performed thousands of times per year, mostly on healthy babies of healthy mothers . . . but it's perfectly constitutional." And so on.
Thanks to President Clinton's vetoes, the moral disaster of partial birth abortion has dragged on. This has given supporters of this procedure the time to divert people's attention, with the claim that there are a handful of women in the United States who simply must have this procedure or be ruined. In the words of President Clinton, who has been a leading advocate for this particular propaganda:
- "When I vetoed the bill, there were five women standing with me ..."
- "They all desperately wanted their children. They didn't want abortions."
- And who are we to tell such women that they can't have partial-birth abortions when delivery would have "ripped your body to shreds and you could never have another baby, even though the baby you were carrying couldn't live."
And finally: "But the president is the only place in this system of ours where there's one person who can stand up for people . . . who are going to be eviscerated [without partial-birth abortion]."
Again and again, when called to defend his veto, the President held these women up to us, and dared us to doubt him, or them. In the Senate, these women were held up again and again as the preeminent rationale for opposing a ban on partial-birth abortion.
But it was all a diversion. The stories don't hold. Vicki Stella later admitted: "I could have gone on, maybe tried to give birth to a child that would not live." Claudia Ades: "My procedure was elective. All of our procedures [of the women at the veto ceremony] were considered elective." Coreen Costello: Depending on which public statement one is to believe, Mrs. Costello either (1) did not have a partial birth abortion at all because the baby "pass[ed] away peacefully inside my womb"; (2) was asleep the whole time and has no recollection, or (3) had a partial birth abortion but will not produce medical records to verify this. Tamy Watts: "I had a choice. I could have carried this pregnancy to term, knowing everything that was wrong [with the baby]." And Mary Line later told Commonweal magazine that her surgery was not partial-birth abortion, but rather a procedure to drain the excess fluid from the head of her hydrocephalic son to "allow his head to pass undamaged through the birth canal."
Our initial instincts were right. Partial-birth abortion is as awful as it seems. As gratuitous as it seems. There is no reason in this world to put up with it. If you have a chance to contact your Senators before their vote in mid-September, and to remind them of the fundamental wrongness of partial-birth abortion, please do it.
Helen Alvare is Director of Planning and Information for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC.