“What the hell is a partial birth abortion?”
Sitting at my desk at the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, I looked at my staff person quizzically, not understanding what she was talking about. She had just told me about legislation that had been recently introduced in the Congress called “The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.” She then proceeded to tell me about this abortion procedure.
According to the legislation and the accompanying statements, the abortion doctor would enter the pregnant woman’s birth canal and use forceps drag down the still-alive baby to the point where it’s torso was hanging outside the woman, the head still inside. He would then inject a suction-like instrument into the head of the fetus and take out the contents of the brain. The head would then shrink and the doctor would slide out the dead fetus.
I looked at my staff person as if she were from outer space, not comprehending what she had just described. Now, I had seen a number of late term abortions and, believe me, they are not pretty. But this sounded downright bizarre. We later learned that this abortion technique had been “pioneered” by Doctor Martin Haskell of Ohio who used it because he thought it would cause less trauma to a woman with a tight cervix and small birth canal. Indeed, Haskell apparently had attended a meeting of the National Abortion Federation and presented a “white paper” on the technique to an audience of doctors. He referred to the procedure as an “Intact D&X.”
Then – and don’t ask me how – someone in the pro-life movement got hold of this paper and it went global. And somewhere along the line some incredibly clever person, who no doubt had a background in public relations, re-named the procedure a “partial birth abortion.” I always thought that person deserved some kind of bonus for being so imaginative.
The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, was flabbergasted. It was always pretty obvious to me that the pro-choice leadership had always been uncomfortable with the actual abortion procedure and those who performed them. In fact, when I lobbied for the National Abortion Rights Action League I remember several conversations to that effect. They all knew that abortions were not pretty and always tried to steer the conversation back to “choice,” but when word got out about this legislation, they were stunned. Their first calls were to the National Abortion Federation, Planned Parenthood and our organization. Suddenly, they had to talk about abortion.
My first response was to call a number of our doctors who did later abortions to see if they knew about this procedure. I quickly learned that several of them actually used a variation of the procedure where the fetus was first injected with a drug called digoxin, thus killing it. Then, the fetus was dragged down, the contents of the brain were removed and then it was pulled
After collecting and sharing information on the procedure, the pro-choice groups had a strategic decision to make: should they fight the bill?
My immediate reaction was that there was no way we could ultimately win this battle. I got that sense after talking to a friend of mine, Congressman Jim Moran, who was very pro-choice and who told me he could not defend this kind of procedure. If we were going to lose Jim, we could not win. So, I argued that we should lie down and let this bill pass on a unanimous vote. I gave two reasons. The first was that as far as I could tell, if this bill became law it would affect only ONE doctor in the entire nation – Doctor Haskell. That’s because the legislation prohibited using this procedure on a “live” fetus. All of the other doctors killed the fetus first then they performed the procedure. The legislation (as confirmed by the Center for Reproductive Rights) would not have affected those doctors. The second reason I suggested we roll over was that I could see that it would be a public relations nightmare. If we opposed the bill, it would engender a furious national debate – and there was no way we would win it. I mean, how the hell could we go on television and justify this procedure to the American public? Now, don’t get me wrong, I always felt that this procedure was very legitimate and, in some ways, I thought it was more “humane” than a regular D&E where the doctor uses forceps to extract the parts of the fetus. But how the heck do you talk to the media about this procedure?
Ultimately, the pro-choice groups decided to fight the legislation. Honestly, I never heard a real good reason given internally. Then, on the public front, they started to argue that there were “only” a small amount of the procedures performed in the first place and that, when performed, they were used only in very extreme circumstances, such as when a woman’s life was in danger. That started the pro-choice movement on a very slippery slope which ultimately resulted in disaster.
More about that later.