The following column first appeared in the March 1997 edition of Crisis Magazine.
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President Clinton’s veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act last April cracked open the facade of principle and consensus that our national leadership had presented to the country. The ideological gulf that exists between the president and the electorate, if ever in doubt, is now irrefutable.
When the 105th Congress opened session in January, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, originally passed with broad support in both houses of the U.S. Congress, was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate. It is scheduled for introduction in the House in February. Because the 1996 elections did not bring significant changes to the political landscape, the effort to pass the ban will not be markedly different from that of last year. Clearly, we need legislators – both Senators and Congressmen – to change their votes. How do we accomplish this?
We must remember that for many elected officials, when mediating between the voice of the soul and the demands of the political marketplace, accurate and authoritative information can often sway them toward the truth. In both the Senate and the House of Representatives, many members who originally stood against the ban reconsidered their position after gathering more information, listening to testimony, and considering new findings.
Crucial to the success of this legislation, then, will be the educational process by which both congressional members and the public are informed on the issue. According to a Wirthlin poll in May 1996, only 28 percent of Americans knew what a partial-birth abortion was. Considering the small number of people who actually were aware of this brutal practice, it is amazing that proponents of the ban succeeded in gaining the support that we did.
Among the most compelling voices to emerge from this debate were those of grassroots citizens whose feelings represented those of many Americans when confronted with the brutality of partial-birth abortions. It is of great importance that when Americans see defenders of life in the public arena, they see themselves. Unless this happens, we will not achieve the groundswell of support necessary for the success of a pro-life agenda or of a partial-birth ban.
Parents who have faced the tragedy of expecting a sick or disabled child, and who chose to welcome that new life for however brief a period, should be the voices before Congress and the public. They can bear effective witness to the viability of an alternative to partial-birth abortion.
The second group of critical voices are those of the medical profession. Because the debate turns – however falsely – on the central point of medical necessity, the professional views of medical doctors anchor the discussion in fact and authority. A coalition group, the Physicians Ad Hoc Coalition for Truth (PHACT), formed in response to the astonishing number of falsehoods that were circulated about partial-birth abortions.
What these two groups can do is stunningly simple, but tragically unaccomplished: Tell American citizens exactly what a partial-birth abortion is. Pollsters have informed us that if the public actually knew what the procedure was, many would not support it. And this is where we locate the importance of language. The most effective voices will use the common language of facts to reach the common knowledge of what is right and what is not – the language of natural law.
Precisely because so much information surrounding this issue is either false, distorted, or irrelevant, we need to establish conceptual parameters so that the debate can be narrowly focused.
First, in the interests of both clarity and focus, we need to remove this debate from the pro-life/pro-choice paradigm. It is separate and distinct; this legislation in no way works to overturn Roe v. Wade. The opponents of the ban know this.
Second, in the interests of locating and even broadening the public consensus, we need to ensure that the debate is not reduced exclusively to one of religious perspective. Religious admonition on this topic has proven largely ineffective in engaging the non-believing or unconvinced public. Further, exclusively religious language allows opponents to undermine our legitimate claim that this issue cannot be separated from a discussion of the common good.
Partial-birth abortion should be clearly linked to the deadening of our cultural life. Cultural erosion is an issue of broad concern and consensus; tolerance of partial-birth abortion needs to be inserted into this range of concern.
Finally, defining our position’s intellectual integrity can be accomplished by several means. We must keep the attention fairly focused on the medical arguments for the simple reason that there are no legitimate medical reasons for partial-birth abortions. The health amendment – requiring exceptions to a proposed ban for broadly defined health reasons – is a gutting amendment and should, once again, be exposed as such.
We also should highlight the illogic and inconsistency of those legislators who stood up in Congress and gave fetal deformity as a rationale for late-term abortions and yet spoke with passion about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), because they believed that people with disabilities could, in fact, contribute to our country. We can now ask how a legislator rightly claims that disabilities are no basis for discrimination and yet can cite those same disabilities as the very rationale for this kind of infanticide.
We also can ask legislators how they can offer their words of support for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which would allocate federal dollars to educate the physically and mentally disabled, when those same potential disabilities, in an unborn child, are considered so burdensome. We can ask legislators why they would support destroying fully formed, viable babies – whose rights they would fight for just three inches later.
Once having established the importance of this debate to our public values, it then follows that this is a debate that must be won or lost on its merits, not on procedural considerations. Such a focus on procedure is evasive and reveals the weakness of the case against a ban.
While opponents of the ban probably will not resort to this tactic as often as they did, we should not be afraid to suggest that a procedural focus deprives the American public of an open and substantive discussion about the degree to which our laws will be grounded in justice and truth. And we should not be afraid to suggest that Americans imagine what a country, whose laws are not rooted in these ideals, might look like.
After working on this issue for more than a year now, I am convinced of the need to marshal the right voices to a disciplined and highly defined public debate. In this manner, we could succeed in focusing the attention of the many Americans who still do not know what a partial-birth abortion is.