The Abortion Debate: No Longer About Viability

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Abortion Debate: No Longer About Viability

A stack of unread magazine articles accumulated in my den from October through December, and I have just recently waded through them. Cynthia Gorney's article "Gambling With Abortion" was one of them -- published in Harper's right before the outcome of the Bush-Kerry election was decided.

Gorney's article mya be the most interesting and informative article I've ever read about the politics and language of the debate over so-called "partial birth" abortion. I highly recommend the article. In it, Gorney writes:
The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, which is the only federal law ever to include the phrases “gruesome and inhumane” and “removing the baby’s brains,” was signed last November by George W. Bush and has just been declared unconstitutional by three separate U.S. District Court judges.

Its next stop is the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal.

... The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban does not prohibit what most people think it prohibits .... the ban contains no mention at all of third-trimester abortion, or of any gestational point in pregnancy. It criminalizes only by method, outlawing some actions during a pregnancy termination but not others .... it makes clear ethical sense only to people who don’t spend much time thinking about abortion.

Defending the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban in court, as teams of Justice Department lawyers were dispatched this spring and summer to do, requires arguing to judges that pulling a fetus from a woman’s body in dismembered pieces is legal, medically acceptable, and safe; but that pulling a fetus out intact, so that if the woman wishes the fetus can be wrapped in a blanket and handed to her, is appropriately punishable by a fine, or up to two years’ imprisonment, or both.

... The reason the ban makes no reference to viability or fetal development, (pro-life lobbyist Douglas) Johnson said, is that for legal purposes those don’t matter. The fetus’s location is what matters, he said: if it’s all the way out of the woman’s body and it’s alive, it’s been born, no matter how developed it is, and regardless of the woman’s intentions when the procedure began.

... I knew that what I wanted to ask Johnson had a slightly crackpot quality to it, but I was curious anyway: for the dedicated right-to-life person, isn’t it ethically repugnant to press the case that one method of ending fetal life is worse than another? Isn’t this like arguing about whether murder by gunshot is societally preferable to murder by strangulation?

“I guess we dispute the premise that these things are inevitable—that if you address one form of brutality against the human family, people are just going to go to another one,” Johnson said. “I don’t think the killing, the taking of an innocent human life, becomes ethically less problematic if it’s done one way or another. But on the other hand, it’s preferable that there should be less suffering, rather than more ..."

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