The Abortion Ruling: An Isolated Win?

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Dana Lixenberg for TIME

Fetal-development models.

Back in 1989, when I was covering abortion for the Los Angeles Times, I came across a doctor in Los Angeles named James McMahon. He was the provider of choice for wealthy women from as far away as the Philippines who wanted to terminate pregnancies that had progressed past the first trimester, and he was very excited about a new procedure he had developed. This is what I wrote back then: "McMahon has developed his own method that he calls intrauterine cranial decompression. He arranges the fetus so that he can remove it feet first. Before the skull emerges, he 'collapses' it by inserting a three-millimeter instrument known as a cannula and extracting its fluid. By keeping the fetus intact, he says, he runs less risk of internal injury to the woman."

As best I know, this was the first time that any news account mentioned the procedure that other practitioners would later rename "intact dilation and extraction." It didn't make much of a stir at the time. But when the anti-abortion movement picked up on it in the mid-1990s and attached its own label — "partial birth abortion" — it became the rallying cry with which opponents began reversing many of the gains that the pro-choice movement had made over the previous two decades. This week, the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on the procedure, which is a move that many believe will open the way for more abortion restrictions on the state level, where most of the debate over the issue is being waged these days.

I'm not so sure. From the outset, the issue of "partial birth abortion" has been fraught with dishonesty on both sides. Pro-choice advocates tried to make the case that it was rarely used, and only in the most extreme circumstances, such as in cases where a fetus was deformed. The first part was true, but only because the vast majority of abortions occur in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, when this procedure would not even be a consideration. The latter was false, as reporters who went past the spin soon learned. Ruth Padawer of the Bergen Record found that in one New Jersey clinic alone, something like 1,500 of them were being performed every year.

Washington Post reporters David Brown and Barbara Vobejda discovered:

"It is possible — and maybe even likely — that the majority of these abortions are performed on normal fetuses, not on fetuses suffering genetic or developmental abnormalities. Furthermore, in most cases where the procedure is used, the physical health of the woman whose pregnancy is being terminated is not in jeopardy. In virtually all cases, there are alternative ways to perform the abortion safely, though perhaps not as safely as when intact D&E is used."

But the passion with which the other side has attacked the procedure is misleading as well. Do abortion foes really see it as more objectionable than any other alternative at that stage in pregnancy? The only real difference for the fetus is where the abortion occurs: as dismemberment in the uterus, or as intact destruction several inches down the birth canal. But for the woman, there is often a big difference. Medical professionals who use the more controversial procedure say it is significantly easier on the woman, and that it could make a difference in her ability to bear children later in life, when she wants them.

The real reason the anti-abortion movement picked this particular fight was simple. They could win it. As G.O.P. strategist Ralph Reed told me in 1995: "Anytime we can talk about the child, we win. Anytime we get off the child and start talking about technical issues or constitutional issues, we lose." While there are many new abortion restrictions being proposed in the states, their proponents will be fighting on far more hostile political territory. In South Carolina, for instance, lawmakers are considering — and the Governor supports — a bill that would make it mandatory for a pregnant woman to view an ultrasound of her fetus before obtaining an abortion, regardless of whether there was any medical necessity for the sonogram. Even the state's Republican Attorney General Henry McMaster has warned that it would be "illegal and improper for the state to force a person seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound image against her will." In Oklahoma, Governor Brad Henry this week vetoed legislation that would ban state facilities and employees from performing abortions, except in cases where the woman's life is at risk.

That's why I don't expect the court decision this week to have many larger implications. The fact is, where the two sides of the issue are at war over abortion and always will be, most Americans long ago decided what they think about it. They want abortion to be legal, but they don't want it to be easy. And their qualms about it grow as a pregnancy progresses. As with everything else about this debate, the absolutes will always give way to the individual.