Saturday, April 21, 2007

More on Late-Term Abortions, and the SCOTUS Ruling

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Barbara O'Brien has a must-read follow-up post on the SCOTUS ruling upholding The "Partial Birth" Abortion Act of 2003. The most important take-away point: The procedure that pro-fetal lifers are saying the Supreme Court banned -- late-term elective abortions of viable fetuses -- is, in fact, not what the Supreme Court banned. The ignorance of pro-fetal lifers on this point is bottomless:

Time and time again I am struck by how little people know about abortion law and practice in the U.S. This includes most people with firm opinions on abortion. For example, earlier this week I noticed one right-wing blog after another celebrating the end of “late-term abortions,” by which they obviously mean abortion of a viable fetus, presumably for frivolous reasons. Example:

Most Americans, even those who are pro-choice, understand how sick this procedure was. If a late term pregnancy was so harmful to the mother’s health, then the mother should just deliver the baby and give the baby a chance to survive. But this procedure wasn’t really about saving the life of the mother. It was about killing an unwanted baby. …

… Some lefties are angry at Justice Kennedy, claiming that he’s abandoned them, and now they’re lamenting the fact that killing a late term unborn baby by sucking its brains out is no longer legal. Of course, they disguise partial birth abortion as “women’s rights,” which is a bunch of hooey.

Here’s a feminist whose first comment was “We’re f***ed.” Sure, lady, if you mean that you can’t go to an abortionist when you’re 6+ months pregnant and have your unborn baby almost completely delivered except for his head and have his brains sucked out while he’s still alive because you just don’t feel like being pregnant any longer, then yes, I suppose you’re f***ed. Be sure to check out the comments on this feminist’s blog as well. These wacko women are beside themselves about the fact that they can’t kill their babies in this manner any longer.

But elective late-term abortions were already illegal in most states. Roe v. Wade allows states to ban abortions once the fetus has reached the gestation age at which it is potentially viable, about 23 weeks[*], except when the life and health of the mother are at risk. There are laws on the books in most states to that effect. Some of the states that don’t have such laws in effect are those which tried to enact a law without the “life and health” exception, and the law got tangled up in court challenges.
The “Partial Birth” Abortion Act of 2003, while burdened with several miscarriages of fact and logic, makes no provisions for the lateness of the procedure, just the nature of the procedure. The real battle begun by this week’s SCOTUS ruling is not over “late term” abortions, but “mid term” abortions, meaning second-trimester abortions performed before a fetus is possibly viable.
So what was just banned, exactly?

About the only point everyone seems agreed on is that the act bans a second trimester (notice emphasis) procedure called “intact D&E” (sometimes referred to as dilation and extraction, or D&X) in which all but the fetal head is extracted, then the fetal skull is pierced or crushed so it can easily pass through the birth canal. However, the far more common practice in second trimester abortions is dilation and evacuation , also called standard D&E, in which surgical instruments are used to dismember the fetus in the womb, and body parts are pulled out through the birth canal.

Exactly why one procedure is more icky than the other eludes me. However, my understanding is that some physicians prefer intact D&E (or D&X) procedures because with the standard D&E physicians must fish around for all the little fetus pieces, thus increasing risk of injury or infection to the woman. In some cases a woman whose life or health is really on the line might be at less risk with an intact D&E rather than a standard D&E.

Put another way, what pro-fetal lifers call "partial birth" abortions, and "late-term" abortions, are not the same thing. This is not as obvious as it might seem because, as Barbara points out, abortion opponents use the terms interchangeably, so that now they are inextricably associated in public discourse:

Organizations working to criminalize abortion have done a great job conflating the terms “late term” and “partial birth,” and I infer most wingnuts think they’re the same thing. This has led to fuzzy headed assumptions (such as the one quoted at the top of this post) that women routinely waltz into abortion clinics in the last trimester of pregnancy and demand abortions because they are having a bad hair day. But I’ve seen no authoritative data saying that elective third-trimester abortions are being performed by licensed medical personnel anywhere in the U.S., including those few states that haven’t expressly banned them.

And it’s very rare for a viable fetus to have to be sacrificed to save a mother. I understand third-trimester abortions are most commonly done when the fetus is already dead or has no hope of survival, but I don’t have a source to prove that. On the other hand, “rare” is not “never,” and if you (or your wife, or daughter, or sister, or mother) are one of the rare exceptions, is that OK? And how weird is it to justify sacrificing the life of even one woman for some twisted principle misnamed the “right to life”?

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