by Dr. C. Everett Koop in the New York Times on 9/26/96. Dr. Koop was Surgeon General from 1981 to 1989. Received via PK on 9/26/96.
HANOVER, N.H. -- The debate in Congress about the procedure known as partial-birth abortion reveals deep national uneasiness about abortion 23 years after the Supreme Court legalized it. As usual, each side in the debate shades the statistics and distorts the facts. But in this case, it is the abortion-rights advocates who seem inflexible and rigid. The Senate is expected to vote today on whether to join the House in overriding President Clinton's veto of a bill last April banning partial-birth abortion. In this procedure, a doctor pulls out the baby's feet first, until the baby's head is lodged in the birth canal. Then, the doctor forces scissors through the base of the baby's skull, suctions out the brain, and crushes the skull to make extraction easier. Even some pro-choice advocates wince at this, as when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan termed it "close to infanticide." The anti-abortion forces often imply that this procedure is usually performed late in the third trimester on fully developed babies. Actually, most partial-birth abortions are performed late in the second trimester, around 26 weeks. Some of these would be viable babies. But the misinformation campaign conducted by the advocates of partial-birth abortion is much more misleading. At first, abortion-rights activists claimed this procedure hardly ever took place. When pressed for figures, several pro-abortion groups came up with 500 a year, but later investigations revealed that in New Jersey alone 1,500 partial-birth abortions are performed each year. Obviously, the national annual figure is much higher. The primary reason given for this procedure -- that it is often medically necessary to save the mother's life -- is a false claim, though many people, including President Clinton, were misled into believing this. With all that modern medicine has to offer, partial-birth abortions are not needed to save the life of the mother, and the procedure's impact on a woman's cervix can put future pregnancies at risk. Recent reports have concluded that a majority of partial-birth abortions are elective, involving a healthy woman and normal fetus. I'll admit to a personal bias: In my 30 years as a pediatric surgeon, I operated on newborns as tiny as some of these aborted babies, and we corrected congenital defects so they could live long and productive lives. In their strident effort to protect partial-birth abortion, the pro-choice people remind me of the gun lobby. The gun lobby is so afraid of any effort to limit any guns that it opposes even a ban on assault weapons, though most gun owners think such a ban is justified. In the same way, the pro-abortion people are so afraid of any limit on abortion that they have twisted the truth to protect partial-birth abortion, even though many pro-choice Americans find it reasonable to ban the procedure. Neither AK-47's nor partial-birth abortions have a place in civil society. Both sides in the controversy need to straighten out their stance. The pro-life forces have done little to help prevent unwanted pregnancies, even though that is why most abortions are performed. They have also done little to provide for pregnant women in need. On the other side, the pro-choice forces talk about medical necessity and under-represent abortion's prevalence: each year about 1.5 million babies have been aborted, very few of them for "medical necessity." The current and necessarily graphic debate about partial-birth abortion should remind all of us that what some call a choice, others call a child.