Partial-Birth Abortion: What Are Our Chances?

Monday, February 20, 2006 — The sun is setting in Rome. My day job is waning and my news job waxing. Now my attention turns to the wires that stream in and indicate with various digital tones of “beep, beep” when Reuters or the AP deems news to be worthy. A sustained and high-pitched squeal is often what ultimately determines the topic of the day’s blog — it’s the computer telling me that something big has happened, or is on its way. Some days the squeals don’t match the relative importance of the news. Today, they do.

My mind was set on tackling with you the issue of the six U.S. domestic ports that soon will be in the hands of a United Arab Emirates-owned firm. That’s big news, and bad news. “Beep, beep.” But, when the second squeal came and I saw the headline, one from the chambers of the highest court in the land, “Supreme Court Agrees to Consider Partial-Birth Abortion Ban” — my mind gave way to my heart. Our blog topic would change. It has, and I’ll be up later than I planned.

The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will consider the constitutionality of banning a type of late-term abortion known as “partial-birth abortion.” Before any commentary, let’s remind ourselves of the facts:


• In 2003 the House and the Senate passed a federal law banning partial-birth abortion. When President Bush signed it into law on November 3rd of that same year, he said the following:

“In passing this legislation, members of the House and Senate made a studied decision based upon the compelling evidence. The best case against partial-birth abortion is a simple description of what happens and to whom it happens. It involves the partial delivery of a live boy or girl, and a sudden, violent end of that life. Our nation owes its children a different and better welcome”

• Since then, federal judges in California, Nebraska, and New York have struck down the ban and kept it from taking effect by ruling that it is unconstitutional. The salient argument was the lack of a “health exception” for the mother.

• The Bush administration, led by Solicitor General Paul Clement, has pressed the Supreme Court to reinstate the federal law.

• The case that the Supreme Court accepted today comes from Nebraska, where the ban was challenged on behalf of physicians who contend that it is the safest method of abortion when the mother’s health is threatened by heart disease, high blood pressure or cancer.


The proponents of partial-birth abortion have changed their tune. While it once was defended as part of the broader “right to choose,” it is now touted as an emergency health procedure alone. Why this change? Just google “partial-birth abortion” and you will see. The widely-available graphic images on the internet of what this “procedure” entails have curtailed all effective cheerleading in its favor. Nobody wants to be known as defending a right to choose that! Planned Parenthood and its co-conspirators have elected to play down the scandalous procedure, and to defend a fictitious patient. Who can deny a woman the right to save her own life in a medical emergency where partial-birth abortion is the only solution? It is a tactic that works on an emotional level, but that doesn’t hold water in the doctor’s office. According to most health professionals, this patient doesn’t exist. Dr. Pamela Smith, director of medical education, department of OB-GYN at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago has said this, for example:

“There are absolutely no obstetrical situations encountered in this country which would require partial-birth abortion to preserve the life or health of the mother.”

Is that just academia pontificating? Dr. Bobby Rader spends his days and nights in the emergency room and in family practice, often delivering babies. As I know he is a follower of this blog, I contacted him last night and this is what he had to say:

“I completely agree with Dr. Smith. The uninformed and antiquated argument used to justify partial-birth abortion by trying to get people to believe that a physician has to choose between the life of a mother and the life of a baby hasn’t applied for a long time. Why not try to save the mother and the baby?"


I say our chances, because I know that the vast majority of Americans are with me on this one. Partial-birth abortion is abhorrent. Its defense is shameless.

In June of 2000, with a ruling of 5-4, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Stenberg vs. Carhart, striking down a state law that had barred a ban on partial-birth abortion. The argument stated that the law was unconstitutional because there was no provision made for the “health of the mother.” The new case that will be argued in the fall is much of the same. What is not the same is the face of the court. The swing vote on the 2000 case was Judge Sandra Day O’Connor. Judge Samuel Alito likely will take the honors in 2006.

The first abortion ruling of the newly-formed Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice John Roberts, was the case of Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. It was about parental consent. The 9-0 ruling was so narrowly worded that it resolved very little, punting the issue back to the lower courts. More interesting than the ruling itself, however, were the oral arguments, where conservative justices warned lawyers not to create laws based on hypothetical cases or exceptions.

Did these judges know then that the great hypothetical case of a fictitious patient was on its way? I think so.


I mean to say, “a call to all doctors.” I would love to hear from you, and from all health professionals in the know. Could you answer for us the following question?

In your experience, how common (in this country) is the medical necessity of a partial-birth abortion to preserve the life or health of the mother?

We’ll post the answers with only your first names.

God bless, until Friday, Father Jonathan

P.S. Many of you know from my blog entry “Real Suffering, Real Solutions” (see archive file), that I am currently working on a book about living with suffering and finding meaning in it. If anyone has stories about triumphing through the personal drama of abortion, I would love to hear from and learn from you. I, of course, will not publish anything with real names.

Write to Father Jonathan Morris at