The myth of "partial-birth" abortions.

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Oct. 22 2003 7:11 PM

The "Partial-Birth" Myth

No, it's not a birth.

Listen to William Saletan discuss this topic on NPR's Day to Day.

I'm no fan of second-trimester abortions. They're horrible, and if you can avoid having one, you should. They can be particularly disturbing when they're done by extracting the fetus intact, in a manner that looks like birth. But they aren't births.

It's easy for journalists who have covered the abortion debate (and in my case, written a book about it) to gloss over this fact when we talk about the ban the Senate just passed. We know the procedure in question is an abortion that sort of looks like a birth, not a birth interrupted by an abortion. But it's far from clear that we've adequately conveyed this distinction to the public.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

I watched the whole Senate debate yesterday. I lost count of how many times pro-life senators used language implying that the procedure they were banning was a birth interrupted by an abortion. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Rick Santorum, opened the debate by saying, "The term 'partial birth' comes from the fact that the baby is partially born, is in the process of being delivered. … Here is this child who is literally inches away from being born, who would otherwise be born alive." Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Senate's only doctor, concluded the debate by describing the procedure as "destroying the body of a mature unborn child."

President Bush exploits the same illusion. In his State of the Union address this year, he said the bill would "protect infants at the very hour of their birth."

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That's just false. This procedure doesn't take place anywhere near the appointed hour of birth. If you paid close attention to the Senate debate, you might have noticed the part where Santorum said the procedure was performed "at least 20 weeks, and in many cases, 21, 22, 23, 24 weeks [into pregnancy], and in rarer cases, beyond that." He didn't clarify how many of these abortions took place past the 20th week. A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks. In 1992, the Supreme Court mentioned that viability could "sometimes" occur at 23 or 24 weeks. Santorum described a 1-pound fetus as "a fully formed baby," noting that while it was only at 20 weeks gestation, it had a complete set of features and extremities. But according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the survival rate for babies born weighing 500 grams or less—that's 1 pound, 1 ounce or less—is 14 percent.

Initial reports on the bill passed yesterday don't convey these distinctions. The New York Times says, "The bill defines the procedure as one in which the person performing the abortion 'deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus … [ellipses mine] for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus.' " The Washington Post says, "As described in the bill, the procedure, generally performed during a pregnancy's second or third trimester, involves a physician puncturing the skull of a fetus and removing its brain after it is partially delivered."

If you haven't been following the debate closely, it's easy to walk away with the impression that the "delivery" is a nearly full-term birth, as the bill's name implies. It's easy to say yes when a pollster asks you whether you favor a "law to make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as 'partial-birth abortion,' except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother." That's the question the Gallup organization asked in January. Based on responses to that question, USA Today reports this morning that the poll "showed that 70% of Americans back the ban."

I'd like to know how many of the people who answered that question understood exactly what they were being asked about.

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