Why Defend Partial-Birth Abortion?

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
          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.

Go Back CCRC Home Page E-Mail