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Partial-birth abortion debate: Minds were changed, lives saved

WASHINGTON (BP)–Though it required more than eight years of effort and though it has been criticized by a few pro-life advocates, enactment of the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act has been a worthy enterprise that already has saved lives, supporters of the new law said.

Even before the ban was first introduced in 1995, the focus of the abortion debate began moving toward the grisly procedure pro-lifers labeled partial-birth abortion. Descriptions and drawings of a method that left all but a baby’s head delivered from his mother’s womb before he was killed stunned many Americans.

After two congressional attempts to outlaw the procedure were vetoed by President Clinton in the last half of the 1990s, supporters of the ban saw their efforts rewarded Nov. 5 when President Bush signed it into law.

Yet, a few pro-lifers criticized the measure when it was enacted.

“The devil himself would have signed this bill,” said Flip Benham, national director of Operation Save America/Operation Rescue, in a written release. “This piece of legislation will not save the life” of a single baby, he said.

Abortion doctors will switch to a different method; the ban will not be enforced, and it makes an “immoral distinction” between younger and older unborn children, Benham said.

The partial-birth abortion ban and the debate over it for nearly a decade have changed minds and saved lives, others contend, however.

The debate over partial-birth abortion “may very well turn out to have been the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of the pro-life movement,” Southern Baptist ethics leader Richard Land said.

“In a representative democracy like the United States, this has always been a struggle for hearts and minds, and the pro-life cause is winning that struggle,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The partial-birth abortion debate has been a significant element of winning that debate.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, is credited with galvanizing opposition to slavery in the United States. When President Lincoln met its author, Harriett Beecher Stowe, he is quoted as saying, “So, this is the little lady who started this big war!”

The partial-birth abortion ban signed by President Bush prohibits a procedure that usually consists of the delivery of an intact baby feet first until only the head is left in the birth canal. The doctor pierces the base of the infant’s skull with surgical scissors, then inserts a catheter into the opening and suctions out the brain. The collapse of the skull provides for easier removal of the baby’s head. This typically occurs during the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy.

“The partial-birth abortion debate has been a catastrophe for the pro-death movement in America,” Land said. “It has done much to humanize unborn and partially born children, and it has forced the pro-death movement to try to defend what is manifestly the ugliest and least defensible aspect of abortion on demand.”

He credits the partial-birth debate as a significant reason for the shift in American public opinion on abortion.

As one example, the Center for the Advancement of Women, a pro-choice organization, reported earlier this year its survey showed 51 percent of women believe abortion should be legally prohibited in the overwhelming percentage of cases. They made exceptions for saving the mother’s life and in cases of rape or incest. The survey found 68 percent of women believe there should be more restrictions on abortion than now exist.

Pro-life sentiments not only are increasing among Americans generally but becoming stronger among young people.

“There’s been so much media attention over the last seven to eight years on partial-birth abortion, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of it has had an effect on 12-to-14-year-olds, and it is a public relations coup for the National Right to Life Committee,” said David J. Garrow, a legal historian at Emory University who has written about reproductive rights, The New York Times reported in March.

In a recent Gallup poll, 77 percent of adults 18 to 29 years of age favored a ban on partial-birth abortion. Support for a ban among adults older than that age bracket was only 68 percent.

While such developments as improved ultrasound technology also have had an influence on opinion, pro-life leaders contend the impact of the national debate over partial-birth abortion should not be discounted.

The impact of the finally successful effort to ban the method legislatively has been about more than public relations, said Douglas Johnson, the National Right to Life Committee’s legislative director.

“I differ with those critics who say it won’t prevent any abortions. I say it already has prevented a considerable number,” said Johnson, a primary leader in the effort to ban the procedure.

The effort “had an educational purpose from the beginning — one, for the first time showing [Americans] how one type of abortion can be done … and two, teaching them something about the state of the law about how little protection is provided [for unborn children],” Johnson said.

It is certainly possible for abortion doctors to change to another procedure, Johnson acknowledged. Those who would continue to do partial-birth abortions under a federal ban would have to be concerned, however, about nurses, technicians or even the people who dispose of the bodies reporting them to law enforcement officials, he said. Those who worked in Congress for the ban did not consider this procedure “ethically worse than being torn apart,” Johnson said.

Though the Supreme Court’s doctrine since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has not acknowledged fetal personhood, supporters of the partial-birth abortion ban believed outlawing the killing of a partially delivered child was “something that we ought to be able to do,” Johnson said. “Here’s an abortion method where the baby is brought three-fourths over the line of personhood. So that makes a difference.”

Each step of the debate produced evidence of the personhood of the unborn child and the horror and extent of the procedure, he said.

“Each of these lawmakers, journalists and millions of American has been educated, and that has prevented abortions already,” Johnson said. “Lord knows how many women, and the partners [who would have pressured them], have decided not to have abortions as a result.”