SBC Life Articles

Gambling with Abortion

Americans who care deeply about the protection of human life must face one monumental question: How can the American conscience be so apparently untroubled by the reality of abortion? That is the central question raised in an important article published in the November 2004 edition of Harper's Magazine. In "Gambling With Abortion," author Cynthia Gorney looks closely at the controversy over the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 and its aftermath, and her article is a wrenching and insightful look at the current status of the abortion issue.

Gorney, a former staff writer for The Washington Post, explains how the partial-birth abortion issue emerged onto the American landscape and why it has functioned as such a volatile and emotion-laden development in the abortion wars.

As Gorney explains, the phrase "partial-birth abortion" is not found in most medical literature. Instead, medical specialists tend to speak of a "dilation and extraction" procedure, as compared to the more common "dilation and evacuation" technique of killing the fetus and removing it from the womb. The label "partial-birth abortion" was developed in the process of forming legislation to ban the procedure. As the pro-abortion movement was soon to find out, public exposure to the reality of this gruesome procedure was to change the very structure of the abortion debate in America.

Abortion rights advocates would eventually refer to the partial-birth abortion controversy as a "silver platter" put in the hands of pro-life advocates. As Kate Michelman, former president of the National Abortion Rights Action League [NARAL], told Gorney, when one of her staff members read the first "Dear Colleague" letter sent by two Republican members of Congress, he told her, "Kate, this is a disaster."

The letter caused NARAL such consternation that they explained the procedure like this: "During the partial-birth procedure, the abortionist uses forceps to pull a living baby feet-first through the birth canal until the baby's body is exposed, leaving only the head just within the uterus. The abortionist then forces surgical scissors into the base of the baby's skull creating an incision through which he inserts a suction tube to evacuate the brain tissue from the baby's skull. The evacuation of this tissue causes the skull to collapse, allowing the baby's head to be pulled from the birth canal."

The procedure came to light in 1992, when an abortion doctor from Ohio spoke to a meeting of the National Abortion Federation and delivered a paper entitled "Dilation and Extraction for Late Second Trimester Abortion."

The doctor, Martin Haskell, told his fellow physicians and abortionists that he was now "routinely" using this procedure for patients whose pregnancy was at or beyond twenty weeks development. Haskell named his procedure "Dilation and Extraction" and shortened it to the acronym "D and X." Haskell boasted of performing over seven hundred of these abortion procedures, "with a low rate of complications."

Gorney helpfully summarizes Haskell's presentation. "To terminate pregnancies of up to twenty weeks, Haskell reminded his colleagues, surgeons typically perform a 'classic D and E,' in which the doctor dismembers the fetus inside the uterus, using forceps, and pulls it out in pieces. After twenty weeks, when the classic D and E is usually hard to accomplish because the fetus's bones are too strong and the tissues are too tough, the standard procedure is either induction, in which the woman is put through a drug-induced miscarriage, or in some cases a form of D and E in which a feticide is injected into the uterus and the dead fetus is then left inside long enough to soften, making it easier to take apart."

Those words are difficult to read, much less to imagine as the substance of a medical presentation. Nevertheless, far worse was to come as Dr. Haskell went on to encourage his colleagues to adopt his new procedure.

Haskell explained that his new procedure would allow for the full emergence of the fetus through the birth canal until only the head remains inside the mother's body. As he continued to explain the procedure, Haskell launched into one of the most gruesome, chilling, and evil descriptions in the annals of medical literature: "The surgeon takes a pair of blunt curved Metzenbaum scissors in the right hand. He carefully advances the tip, curved down, along the spine and under his middle finger, until he feels it contact the base of the skull under the tip of his middle finger. Reassessing proper placement of the closed scissors' tip and safe elevation of the cervix, the surgeon then forces the scissors into the base of the skull or into the foramen magnum. Having safely entered the skull, he spreads the scissors to enlarge the opening. The surgeon removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents. With the catheter still in place, he applies traction to the fetus, removing it completely from the patient."

Gorney uses her reportorial skill to go behind Haskell's claims to the fact that similar procedures were already in use around the nation. In particular, she reports that Dr. James McMahon of Los Angeles "had made a specialty of performing late intacts and then bringing the fetuses to women who would ask to see them." McMahon died of complications from a brain tumor in 1995, but his widow told Gorney that her late husband had developed the procedure in order to allow women to hold their dead fetuses. "Having it intact was a goal," she explained, "so that they could do that, and have this closure."

As Gail McMahon went on to tell Gorney, "I knew what it meant to these women, to be able to hold them, and be able to coo over them and say goodbye. It was profound. I got material, and sewed little tiny sheaths, and we got tiny hats we could dress them in. I would put them on a clean cloth, and I would swath them. Many women spent hours in there, and showed them to their other children. It was always treating the babies with the respect the parents would want them to."

What macabre madness is this? We are supposed to believe that mothers who made the decision to murder their late-term babies through such an evil procedure would want to hold their fetuses — killed at their own request — in order to coo over them and say goodbye?

As the story of the partial-birth abortion controversy unfolds, we are told that the NAF mailing list "had long since been infiltrated by abortion opponents" including an Oregon woman named Jenny Westberg, who published an article on Haskell's presentation in Life Advocate, described by Gorney as "a strident little Portland-based magazine." Significantly, Jenny Westberg is not only a pro-life activist, but she also had experience at cartooning. In order to explain the procedure outlined in Haskell's paper, Westberg produced a series of pen and ink drawings that demonstrated just how the procedure would take place. Her article — and especially her drawings — were to change the trajectory of the abortion debate in America.

Evil flourishes in the darkness, and Westberg's drawings brought the murderous abortion procedure to light.

The pictures gripped the conscience, not only of the pro-life movement, but of many others as well. Keri Folmar, a congressional lawyer who was to write the first version of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, provided first-person testimony of the impact of the description and the drawings. "To think that a human being would actually hold a little baby in his or her hand, and then kill it — that's what got me," she said. "If you're holding that child in your hand, and knowingly killing the child, you can't argue anymore that it's not really a human being. You just can't do it."

The partial-birth abortion procedure — so proudly described by Martin Haskell — blew the lid off the abortion rights movement. "For two decades the people who frame legal-abortion campaigns in this country have been working assiduously to keep the door to that procedure room shut," Gorney reports, "redirecting the national attention to the action beforehand, and afterward, the choice to seek an abortion, the decision to have an abortion, the values inherent in a society that gives women the liberty to make this momentous decision without interference from the state. They had worried for years that if the general public were forced into a mangled-fetus-versus-women's autonomy tradeoff, the mangled fetus would win."

When the partial-birth issue hit the floor of Congress, organizations like NARAL were left grasping for an adequate response. As political leaders began to describe the procedure whereby "the child's brains are sucked out," abortion rights advocates tried to argue that the procedure was both rare and medically necessary. As Gorney acknowledges, the abortion advocates simply lied. Though they had claimed that the procedure was "extremely rare" and was used no more than five hundred times per year, the reality is that thousands are performed on an annual basis.

At one point in the early years of the controversy, a lobbyist for abortion organizations just invented low numbers and fed these to the press. Ron Fitzsimmons later admitted that he "lied through my teeth."

By overwhelming margins, Congress passed Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Acts, only to have the legislation vetoed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and 1997. As a matter of fact, efforts to outlaw the procedure were not successful until last year, when President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 into law.

The abortion rights industry immediately went to court in order to nullify the legislation. Significantly, simultaneous cases were heard in California, New York, and Nebraska.

Gorney's article takes the reader inside the San Francisco courtroom, where an abortion doctor named Maureen Paul, "lead author of a recent medical textbook on abortion," was being questioned by a lawyer from Planned Parenthood. The doctor testified that she used the procedure in order to kill and evacuate a late-term fetus. As she explained, "sometimes the fetus comes out in pieces, and I make instrument passes until the entire fetus is evacuated, and sometimes the whole fetus will come down into the [birth canal], at least as far as the head." In other cases, when the head is too large to pass through the canal, the doctor explained: "There are two things you can do. You can disarticulate at the neck …. Or what I prefer to do is to just reach in with my forceps, and collapse the skull, and bring the fetus out intact."

Disarticulate? This word is nothing less than a sinister euphemism used to disguise the dismemberment of a human fetus.

The courts in California, Nebraska, and New York were eventually to rule that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 is an unconstitutional abridgement of a woman's right to an abortion — in other words, a violation of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade. In the New York case, the judge actually described the procedure as "gruesome, brutal, barbaric, and uncivilized." Nevertheless, he found this evil procedure to be protected by the Roe v. Wade decision.

The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 now heads to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The Bush administration has pledged to put on a full-court defense of the legislation. Eventually, however, the question will reach the U.S. Supreme Court, making the composition of that Court today's most significant factor in the abortion controversy.

Cynthia Gorney's article is painful to read, and her detailed analysis is difficult to bear. At the same time, the awful reality of partial-birth abortion points to the deeply immoral and horrific nature of abortion in any form, by any procedure, at any stage.

How can Americans continue to live such apparently untroubled lives as the reality of this procedure is now widely known? How can we go on with "business as usual" in this nation, knowing that millions of unborn human beings have been "disarticulated" in the womb even as thousands of abortions are performed each day?

Even as journalists, political analysts, and commentators are scurrying to explain the 2004 presidential election and the emergence of "values voters" onto the political stage, we have still failed to force the nation to see the horror of the holocaust taking place in American wombs, performed by American doctors, under watchful American eyes.

Before we grow too optimistic about the outcome of the battles that lie ahead, let's at least be honest with ourselves. We live in a nation with a disarticulated conscience.

    About the Author

  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.