Abortion debate needs clarity

Is the unborn a human being? Do human beings possess intrinsic moral value?

Abby Bar-Lev’s Sept. 21 column, “The federal abortion ban and reframing the debate,” misrepresents the facts surrounding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and inhibits much-needed clarity in the abortion debate.

First, Bar-Lev alleges that the act is “redundant” because “third-trimester abortions essentially have been banned since Ö Roe v. Wade.” But the so-called “health exception” in the third trimester was so broadly defined in Doe v. Bolton (Roe’s companion case) that abortion has since been legal for essentially any reason throughout pregnancy. Moreover, most partial-birth abortions are performed in the second trimester, not the third.

Second, Bar-Lev contends that the act is inconsistent with Supreme Court rulings because it doesn’t include a health exception for the mother. But she fails to even mention the act’s proponents’ claim that partial-birth abortion is never necessary to protect a woman’s health. The Physicians’ Ad Hoc Coalition for Truth says that “partial-birth abortion is never medically necessary to protect a mother’s health or future fertility. On the contrary, this procedure can pose a significant threat to both.” Overwhelming evidence presented in extensive congressional hearings has confirmed this.

Regardless, the act explicitly makes an exception for “a partial-birth abortion that is necessary to save the life of a mother.”

Third, Bar-Lev never bothers to explain what this procedure actually is. Partial-birth abortion is a specific abortion method (used only after the 20th week of pregnancy) in which a living baby is pulled feet-first out of her mother’s womb, except for the head. The baby’s skull is then punctured with a pair of scissors and her brain suctioned out, collapsing her head and allowing for the delivery of the now-dead child.

The American Medical Association supports banning this inhumane practice, calling it “a procedure we all agree is not good medicine.” And the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which is affiliated with Planned Parenthood, has reported thousands of them annually. If there’s “common ground” in the abortion debate, it undoubtedly includes the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

Bar-Lev also hopes to “reframe our way of talking about abortion” by discussing the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels. Rather than delving into the issue, she does nothing but parrot National Abortion Rights Action League talking points: “Men and women who favor abortion rights are pro-choice,” and “the so-called ‘pro-life’ movement is exclusively anti-choice.”

Discounting a few rare types of arguments, each side’s preferred term reflects a prior conclusion about the status of the unborn. Pro-choicers assume either that the unborn isn’t a human being or that he or she is a human being without a significant moral status. The “pro-choice” label and the frequent assertions about privacy, liberty, etc. flow naturally from this assumption. If the unborn isn’t anything valuable, then abortion is morally tantamount to having a tooth pulled.

On the other side, pro-lifers hold that the unborn – like a toddler, teenager, or adult – is an innocent human being with intrinsic dignity, and abortion is morally wrong because it deliberately takes the life of that child. Pro-lifers are “pro-life” because they oppose allowing the killing of innocent human beings.

Two questions seem fundamental to arriving at either view: Is the unborn a human being? Do human beings possess intrinsic moral value? The first is a scientific question, and we’ve known the answer for decades: A living, whole, genetically distinct human organism comes into existence at the moment of conception. The second question – a moral question – is thus determinative. Pro-lifers answer “yes”; pro-choicers must say “no.”

National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru puts it this way: “The fundamental question in dispute Ö can be described in different ways: whether all human beings have a right not to be killed; whether membership in the human species is enough to confer rights; whether we accept the existence of a category of human nonpersons.”

Paul Stark is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]