Last week, the Supreme Court upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act that had been enacted in 2003. The act prohibits a particular form of late-term abortion: intact dilation and extraction, or IDX, characterized by its opponents as “partial-birth” abortion. This is a bad law, and the Court, in upholding it, betrays its earlier decisions in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, fills his opinion with the unpleasant details of the procedure. Quoting a doctor’s description of the procedure, he writes: “[T]he surgeon … forces the scissors into the base of the [fetus’s] 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.”
IDX sounds pretty gross, and it is, but that is not a reason to ban it. Surgery is generally not a pleasant process, and certainly not one that anyone chooses on a whim. Women who get late-term abortions, by and large, don’t do it because they have suddenly decided, after five or six or seven months of pregnancy, that they don’t want to be mothers. An abortion may not be easy to get in Bush’s America, but it’s not so difficult that a woman has to wait six months to get one. The woman who gets a late-term abortion is a woman whose life or health is at risk by delivery, or a woman with a dead or non-viable fetus.
Fully 90 percent of abortions in America occur in the first trimester. Another 8.6 percent occur in the early second trimester. Only 1.4 percent of abortions are considered “late-term” — that is, occurring after the 21st week. IDX is used in only 0.17 percent of all abortions. However, under some circumstances it is the safest and most effective way to end a heartbreaking, dangerous pregnancy.
The other leading methods of late-term abortion — which are still legal under the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act! — involve either inducing labor before the point of viability, or dissecting the fetus with a scalpel while it is still in the womb to deliver it in pieces. Because IDX delivers a fetus whole, there is far less chance of uterine or vaginal perforation from bone fragments, and the woman may, if she wants, view and hold her dead fetus after delivery. Moreover, because IDX takes less time and requires the insertion of fewer instruments than other forms of late-term abortion, there is a smaller risk of infection or accidental uterine puncture from sharp instruments.
The most egregious element of the Court’s decision is that the “Partial-Birth” Abortion Ban includes no exception for the health of the mother. A congressional finding held that was never necessary for a woman’s health; this is simply false, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. A single example, though I am sure that there are more, is that of severe hydrocephalus, a condition in which the fetus’s skull becomes waterlogged, preventing brain development. The fetal head is sometimes so hugely enlarged that it cannot fit through the cervix. In such a case, a woman’s options are either an IDX or a larger-than-normal caesarean section: that is, either an outpatient surgical procedure or major surgery with its potential for life-threatening complications.
In its decisions in Roe and Casey, the Court recognized “the right of the woman to choose to have an abortion before viability and to obtain it without undue interference from the State” and “the State’s power to restrict abortions after fetal viability, if the law contains exceptions for pregnancies which endanger the woman’s life or health.” This law, which the Court upheld, has no exception for the health of the mother. This law does not distinguish between pre-viability and post-viability abortions. Kennedy writes that “Congress determined that the abortion methods it proscribed had a ‘disturbing similarity to the killing of a newborn infant,’ and thus it was concerned with ‘draw[ing] a bright line that clearly distinguishes abortion and infanticide.’” This bright line is, apparently, more important than a woman’s life and health, both of which are at greater risk under this law.
No woman should have to carry a non-viable fetus for months after she knows she will never see her child alive. No woman should have to risk a more dangerous procedure, which may render her infertile. And no woman should have to live with the misogynistic attitude, implicit among the anti-choice forced-gestation crowd, that her value comes not from her status as a human being but from her function as a uterine support system.
Nicola Karras is a freshman in Branford College.