Fetal Separation

Science, technology, and life.
July 21 2008 7:32 AM

Fetal Separation

Starting this week, under orders from the state attorney general and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8 th Circuit , medical providers in South Dakota must present a scripted statement to women who seek abortions. The script, dictated by the legislature three years ago, declares that any abortion "will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being."

Until now, I wasn't aware that the fetus—a term that, according to the South Dakota law, includes " the implanted embryo "—was a whole, separate, living human being. I thought it was ... you know ... implanted . I mean, I'm just a guy, not really an expert or anything. But, um, placenta? Umbilical cord? Do those terms ring a bell? And that's not even getting to the tricky stuff, like the role of maternal RNA in directing embryonic growth or all the work done by the womb to facilitate the embryo's attachment and nourishment.

William Saletan William Saletan

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


I have to say, it's a relief to learn that the embryo is so complete and independent. I mean, it solves the whole problem. Here's this woman who just wants to be separated from her embryo. And lo and behold, it's already separate! No need to agonize. Just detach it and let it grow. It's separate, it's whole, it's living. Cancel the abortion. Perform a separation instead.

Sure, some cranky district attorney might take you to court, claiming your separation was really an abortion. Make sure you countersue for legal costs, because you've got a slam-dunk case. The law under which you're being prosecuted doesn't just declare that embryos and fetuses are separate. It also defines abortion as "the use of any means to intentionally terminate the pregnancy of a woman known to be pregnant with knowledge that the termination with those means will, with reasonable likelihood, cause the death of the fetus."

How can South Dakota claim that you should know separation will kill the fetus, when South Dakota has insisted on informing you, prior to the procedure, that the fetus is already whole and separate?

Don't give me some medical-school mumbo jumbo about obstetrics. The legislature mooted all that blather when it superimposed its judgment. Fetuses are whole and separate. Therefore, being a law-abiding citizen, you have no reason to believe that separation will cause fetal death. Therefore, under the law's terms, separation is not abortion. No need to bother with the onerous paperwork and liability threats the legislature has assigned exclusively to abortion. You're not in the abortion business anymore.

Look, I don't like abortions . Fortunately, neither do the women who ask for them. Most abortions happen because women get pregnant when they're not ready. Prevent the pregnancy, and you  prevent the abortion . So, here's a word of advice to legislators like those in South Dakota: Stop withholding birth control and stop lying to women about their bodies. You can't even keep your lies straight. That's how you ended up telling doctors to tell women that separation will kill a separate human being. See you in court.



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