In the continuing debates on the legality and morality of abortion, “partial birth” abortions have become a hot topic. What exactly is a partial birth abortion? Nebraska state legislation defines it as “an abortion procedure in which the person performing the abortion partially delivers a living unborn child before killing the unborn child and completing delivery” (1). While this definition may be fine for legal purposes, it still does not address the actual procedures; we still do not know what an actual partial birth abortion procedure entails.
The most common procedure is called Intact Dilation and Evacuation, or D&E. D&E involves dismembering the fetus inside the uterine cavity and then pulling it out through the already dilated cervix (1) . Another less common, but more controversial method is the dilation and extraction method, or D&X. This procedure requires a woman to take medication several days in advance to dilate the cervix. Once the cervix has dilated, she returns to complete the procedure. When she returns, the physician turns the fetus around in the uterus so that it is positioned feet first, and then delivers the fetus until only the head remains inside the mother’s body. At this point, the physician punctures the base if the skull and suctions out the contents of the fetus’ head, causing the skull to collapse. The dead fetus is then removed from the woman’s body (2). In each case the head (or more) is left inside the woman’s body because in order for a birth to have occurred under common law the head of the fetus must leave the mother’s body. Under the current interpretation of the United States Constitution, a person must be born in order to be protected by the government, so by leaving the head in the mother’s body the procedure is considered to be legally viable (1).
Proponents of a ban on partial birth abortions cite what they see as the extreme cruelty of the procedures as violating the constitutional rights of the fetus. They believe that birth should be defined as occurring as soon as any part of the fetus’ torso above the navel is visible, or when any of the fetus’ body has left the mother (1). Many argue that since the fetus in undoubtedly alive during the procedure, the issue of whether or not an actual birth has occurred should be of little consequence (3). Since partial birth abortions are performed late-term, many of the fetuses could in fact be self-sustaining outside of the mother’s body.
Those who oppose the ban argue that it jeopardizes the health and safety of the mother. Since all partial birth abortion bans presented in Congress and state legislatures have been vague as to which procedures they prohibit, the overall threat to women’s health is too great and would place an “undue burden” on the women in question (1). Late term abortion procedures that are not partial birth involve dismembering the fetus inside the uterus without cervical dilation, which can leave behind fetal tissue, or require the head to come out of the mother’s body uncollapsed, which can result in a live birth (1). In either of these procedures, there is a higher risk of puncturing the uterus or damaging the cervix than there is with partial birth methods (2). Banning partial birth abortions would leave these procedures as the only option for late term abortion. Additionally, none of the partial birth bans have included clauses allowing such procedures if they are necessary to the mother’s health and well-being. This means that if a woman had to have a late term abortion to save her own life, she would be forced to choose a riskier procedure. Since few women choose to terminate after seven to eight months of pregnancy for non-health related reasoning, it follows that most women seeking a late term abortion would be put in a difficult position. This is what the anti-ban groups mean when they refer to an undue burden on the mother’s health (4).
When I began my investigation, I was sure of my position on abortion rights, and convinced that little could change my mind, regardless of what the procedures actually involved. However, when reading the case made by the pro-ban side of the argument, I could not help but agree with certain things they said. Does birth really define life? I’m not so sure that I agree that it does. Does this mean that I completely disapprove of partial birth abortion? No – I still feel that a woman should be able to choose the safest method available, and in the case of late term abortions, partial birth procedures have obvious benefits. The information I gathered has, however, caused me to question my unconditional support of the procedures – should elective abortions really be allowed if the procedures are as, well, unpleasant as partial birth methods are? What I once thought were clear cut lines between the legal, the biological and the sentimental aspects of the issue have blurred.