Thursday, April 19, 2007

Supreme Court's Ban on "Partial-Birth" Abortion: A Pro-Life Liberal's Take

Score one for the Bushites. I cannnot do anything but rejoice over the the Supreme Court's decision to ban "intact D & E" (partial birth) abortions. And to be sure, that would not have happened unless President Bush had appointed Samuel Alito, Jr., to the High Court.

I am certainly not going, however, to further praise President Bush, the Christian Right, or other forces which, though right on this issue are wrong on a spectrum of others.

Rather, I would only point out that without the pro-life issue, which properly and contextually belongs within a liberal political platform rather than that of the right, President Bush would never have been elected in the first place. We would not be fighting a fraudulent war in Iraq. We would be enjoying the presidency of the most pro-environmental voice presidential politics ever produced, that of Al Gore. We would be working on a terribly complex, but utterly worthy, set of domestic issues involving feminist concerns, poverty issues, health issues, and the liberal distinctive protecting all human life, first and especially those lives at greatest social and economic risk.

Instead, we are over and over again stuck with the right wing because they -- rather than liberals and progressives -- "get it" regarding unborn human life. They may "get it" for a web of bone-headed reasons, including a luddite worldview in which women are viewed as having "roles" they are "meant" to fulfill and other "roles" they are not allowed to participate in. They may "get it" (or think they get it) because they hate feminism and all it has to offer, seemingly being ignorant of womens' history.

But the issue for pro-lifers seems fairly simple. It is an extremely bad idea to abort unborn children, unless the life of the mother is involved. The High Court's decision makes for grim reading -- a medical description of D & E (dilation and evacuation) procedures including both the now-banned variety as well as the form still legal.

Here's the Court's description of a "standard" D & E:

After sufficient dilation the surgical operation can commence. The woman is placed under general anesthesia or conscious sedation. The doctor, often guided by ultrasound, inserts grasping forceps through the woman's cervix and into the uterus to grab the fetus. The doctor grips a fetal part with the forceps and pulls it back through the cervix and vagina, continuing to pull even after meeting resistance from the cervix. The friction causes the fetus to tear apart. For example, a leg might be ripped off the fetus as it is pulled through the cervix and out of the woman. The process of evacuating the fetus piece by piece continues until it has been completely removed. A doctor may make 10 to 15 passes with the forceps to evacuate the fetus in its entirety, though sometimes removal is completed with fewer passes. Once the fetus has been evacuated, the placenta and any remaining fetal material are suctioned or scraped out of the uterus. The doctor examines the different parts to ensure the entire fetal body has been removed. See, e.g., Nat. Abortion Federation, supra, at 465; Planned Parenthood, supra, at 962.

The Court describes the partial birth or intact D & E this way (WARNING - very graphic content):

Intact D&E gained public notoriety when, in 1992, Dr. Martin Haskell gave a presentation describing his method of performing the operation. Dilation and Extraction 110-111. In the usual intact D&E the fetus' head lodges in the cervix, and dilation is insufficient to allow it to pass. See, e.g., ibid.; App. in No. 05-380, at 577; App. in No. 05-1382, at 74, 282. Haskell explained the next step as

" 'At this point, the right-handed surgeon slides the fingers of the left [hand] along the back of the fetus and "hooks" the shoulders of the fetus with the index and ring fingers (palm down).

" 'While maintaining this tension, lifting the cervix and applying traction to the shoulders with the fingers of the left hand, the surgeon takes a pair of blunt curved Metzenbaum scissors in the right hand. He carefully advances the tip, curved down, along the spine and under his middle finger until he feels it contact the base of the skull under the tip of his middle finger.

" '[T]he surgeon then forces the scissors into the base of the skull or into the foramen magnum. Having safely entered the skull, he spreads the scissors to enlarge the opening.

" 'The surgeon removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents. With the catheter still in place, he applies traction to the fetus, removing it completely from the patient.' " H. R. Rep. No. 108-58, p. 3 (2003).

This is an abortion doctor's clinical description. Here is another description from a nurse who witnessed the same method performed on a 26-week fetus and who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

" 'Dr. Haskell went in with forceps and grabbed the baby's legs and pulled them down into the birth canal. Then he delivered the baby's body and the arms--everything but the head. The doctor kept the head right inside the uterus... .

" 'The baby's little fingers were clasping and unclasping, and his little feet were kicking. Then the doctor stuck the scissors in the back of his head, and the baby's arms jerked out, like a startle reaction, like a flinch, like a baby does when he thinks he is going to fall.

" 'The doctor opened up the scissors, stuck a high-powered suction tube into the opening, and sucked the baby's brains out. Now the baby went completely limp... .

" 'He cut the umbilical cord and delivered the placenta. He threw the baby in a pan, along with the placenta and the instruments he had just used.' " Ibid.

Dr. Haskell's approach is not the only method of killing the fetus once its head lodges in the cervix, and "the process has evolved" since his presentation. Planned Parenthood, 320 F. Supp. 2d, at 965. Another doctor, for example, squeezes the skull after it has been pierced "so that enough brain tissue exudes to allow the head to pass through." App. in No. 05-380, at 41; see also Carhart, supra, at 866-867, 874. Still other physicians reach into the cervix with their forceps and crush the fetus' skull. Carhart, supra, at 858, 881. Others continue to pull the fetus out of the woman until it disarticulates at the neck, in effect decapitating it. These doctors then grasp the head with forceps, crush it, and remove it. Id., at 864, 878; see also Planned Parenthood, supra, at 965.

Now. What portion of the above description sounds liberal? None of it does to me. It is about the taking of a human life which is often a fully viable one outside the womb.

I sometimes feel near-rage at being stuck in a country which has so littlle political or social imagination, which insists upon functioning within the same tired dichotomies. Why must the left be pro-choice even to the extreme that they would fight fiercely for the right to kill fully viable fetuses? And why must the right -- who for once gets it right at least in the narrow sense -- be so obtuse about feminism, the radical limiting effects upon one's future a single mother experiences, the increasing lack of housing for poorer women (Lord knows our Cornerstone Shelters make us all too aware of this disconnect), the gaps in health care for very poor women and children, and on and on?

I am sure this little broadside won't help much. But I believe I am a feminist, or if you will (being male) at least "pro-feminist," while also being consistently pro-life.

Sometimes, embracing ideals that cross the invisible politically accepted lines between blue and red will bring us to a point of great pain and stress. Frankly, the older I get as a human being and a Christian, the more I think it is at that point of pain and stress where the truth of things can often be discovered. We are where the reality of human pain, caused by our political over-simplifications, is most felt. We are with the poor mothers, the dispossessed non-sharers in the so-called "American dream," the unprotected unborn, the lives not reducable to political rhetoric. We are looking into the eyes of Christ.

Or so this hopelessly self-contradictory bluechristian sees it.

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Anonymous said...

I feel exactly the same way as you. Actually, I came across this article by googling "pro-life liberal" which leads me to this question: For whom do you think people of our mindset should vote in the next presidential primaries? Is there a particular candidate who is both pro-life but generally liberal? I can't find one. Since I don't have a google account, could you please email me this at

Jon Trott said...

I am very nervous about advocating a vote for a presidential candidate. I am less nervous about saying (at present, anyway) whom I lean personally toward. And that is, whomever the Democrats nominate as their candidate. My own preference is for Obama, first because he is most electable in the general election, and second because he really does seem to be a fresh voice in an otherwise rather "insider" field. I cannot and will not vote Republican next election because of what this administration has done re their little "war on terror," Iraq, and the environment. I also by voting Democrat and advocating others (esp. of my family of faith) also do, letting observers know how ill-advised the evangelical / "Christian Right" / Republican nexus is.

As I said in a personal email I just sent before realizing you commented here, I don't think we have this year any presidential candidate who is pro-life (in the abortion sense) and also generally liberal. We live in a bizarre universe of non-imaginative party leaders, convinced that their current power configuration depends upon the pro-life issue remaining static. Too bad. If the Dems lose, that will be why. And if the Repugnants hold onto the evangelical bloc, it will mainly be due to the pro-life issue -- despite Bush's lack of being pro-life in any larger sense.

Sigh with me.

Arwen Mitchell said...

Your "broadside" has helped much, though it wasn't a broadside for me. I have referenced your viewpoints to other people who I'm either discussing opposing ideas with or who need support in their own similar views but have trouble articulating them. I've been having issues with an acquaintance who just wants to truly broadside others (right now, go figure, after the election - she didn't bring anything up before) with judgmental and offensive blogs and viewpoints of others, and I figure those are easy to find. But to find a take on things like yours? Not so easy. So thank you.