Life Watch: A Day in the House—and a Night in the Media

Something notable had apparently taken place in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, November 1. There had been a vote on abortion, evidently regarded all around as momentous—or in any event, a vote that seemed to set off, among the Democrats, the most extravagant flights of rhetoric in denouncing the measure, which passed nevertheless by a vote of 288 to 139. But a citizen driving home from work that afternoon and listening to National Public Radio would have been hard put to understand exactly what had been voted.

The announcer explained that the House had voted that day to ban a procedure, employed late in pregnancy but rarely used. Just what that procedure was, the announcer, or his superiors, was too fastidious to say.

The curious citizen might have landed at home and turned on his television in an effort to learn something more in substance as to what had been banned by the House. If he turned on CNN, that source of news much heralded for its political detachment would still have told him nothing in substance. What he would have heard instead, from the lady anchoring the news, was that the House had banned a procedure used late in pregnancy mainly when the life of the mother was endangered. The fact that this claim had been amply questioned and indeed refuted on the floor of the House had not the slightest influence in deflecting CNN from incorporating this false account in its “story line” for the evening.

For what the editors and writers had chosen to incorporate was the line, the only line, that the pro-choice congressmen were taking in their public comments—and taking it adamantly, even in the face of evidence it was patently untrue or utterly beside the point. The procedures were not ordered, in most cases, to save the life of the pregnant woman; and the legislation already contained assurances on that point.

Any reporter with an interest in conveying to the public an account of what the Congress was banning that day would have found no want of sound bites, of any size, if he had bothered to take in as much as ten minutes of the debate in the House. The readers of Ciusis have already been given a rather precise account—as precise as any of us may care to recall—in the July-August issue (“The Politics of ‘D & X’: A First Step?”). A journalist might simply have reported the opening words of Rep. Charles Canady (R- Fla.), the manager of the bill, as he reminded his colleagues what was before them: “The baby is partially delivered alive, then stabbed through the skull.” The feet and torso are out of the birth canal, and the head is collapsed. The brains of the child are suctioned out so that the baby can be removed, as we say, “intact” without the need to do a cesarian. Then why kill the child at all? Why not simply deliver it?

The only answer is the one that the pro-choice congressmen could never quite express: namely, that the decision had been made for an abortion; and a few minutes later, the destruction of the child would be homicide. And so, Canady would point out that “the difference between the partial-birth abortion procedure and homicide is a mere three inches.”

Other Republicans, and a few pro- life Democrats, reinforced these points as the hour wore on. A reading of the transcript does not reveal much that is new, but anyone who took in the scene could not miss the power that was built up in the chamber through the sheer accumulation of sentiments expressed, of convictions firming with restatement, and with the buoying evidence that those convictions were widely shared among the Republicans. Once again, Aristotle was right: practice may breed conviction. Invite people persistently to judge and to act, invite them to confirm the maxims underlying their acts, and after a while they may come more and more to appreciate the reasons that support those maxims. In this way, they may discover the principles that impart coherence to their acts, rather than finding in their acts a series of disconnected emotional episodes.

But something else seemed to deepen the cohesion of the Republicans, apart from the exercise of speaking again and again the wrong they meant to condemn. They seemed to be drawn together also out of a contempt, mingled with disbelief, for what they were hearing from the other side of the hall. In the face of diagrams depicting the child, the partisans of abortion managed to detach themselves from any natural sympathies for the child. In fact, it appeared that nothing about the child made an impression on their visual screens or their imaginations. What they professed to see were only the interests of the pregnant woman.

The child’s legs may be dangling outside in the world, but Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), herself the wife of an abortionist, could see nothing but “a fetus with no potential of life.” She was drawn back powerfully to the prospect of “extreme fetal deformity late in pregnancy.” This theme was sounded often by the speakers who sought to explain why anyone without sadistic reflexes would order up a procedure of this kind. And yet, that argument was embarrassed by the admission of Dr. Haskell, one of the principal practitioners of this method, that only 20 percent of these abortions he performed were for “genetic” reasons; “the other 80 percent are purely elective.” It turned out, also, that the “genetic” or “nonelective” abortions were remarkably hazy in their definition. Dr. McMahon, the other notable practitioner, listed nine abortions performed because the child had a “cleft lip.” But we do not ordinarily kill other people for bearing the defect of cleft lips, and apparently many of the other “flaws” were of a comparable nature: They were not life-threatening conditions, and they would not be taken as conditions that justify a homicide for anyone outside the womb.

These abortions were ordered late in pregnancy when parents discovered some of these abnormalities or disabilities. The procedure could have a certain advantage for the pregnant woman in that it was better than an incision, and better than a procedure for dismembering the child in the womb and risking the infections caused by fetal parts left behind. But the latter set of problems could be avoided simply by delivering the child, and in almost no case would the woman be facing a serious risk to her own life. Dr. Pamela Smith, the director of medical education in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, wrote that “there are absolutely no obstetrical situations encountered in this country which require a partially delivered human fetus to be destroyed to preserve the health of the mother.”

And yet, as the news began to filter out to the public, as even the networks began to describe the partial-birth abortions, the defenders of abortion clung rigidly to this one false claim: that the procedure was necessary to preserve the life of the mother and that the legislation made no provision for this danger. Few gestures seem to mark, for the pro-life congressmen, the desperation of the other side—or their shamelessness. For they knew that the legislation did indeed contain “an affirmative defense to a prosecution or a civil action”: the doctor could show that he reasonably believed that the abortion was “necessary to save the life of the mother … and no other procedure would suffice.” As Henry Hyde pointed out, this defense would be satisfied merely by a “preponderance of the evidence”—no need to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt.” All a doctor had to do was show that it was reasonable for him to believe that it was needed in order to save the life of the mother.

Still, the partisans of abortion cried “hoax”: The doctor had to expose himself to prosecution or litigation before this defense could come into play. What they evidently wanted was a soft administrative procedure, in which gentlemen would wink or make a proforma avowal, without any sense that their declaration would be tested seriously in any legal forum. In other words, this legislation was grievous because it required doctors to establish that there were medical or scientific grounds for their judgment and that the procedure had indeed been “necessary.”

And so Sen. Barbara Boxer, with more tenacity than wit, continued to insist to an audience on Nightline that there had been no provision for the life of the mother. On the other side, Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) could merely state the facts anew—but then he put the question that continued to inflame precisely because it was so plain: Since the procedure was so close to delivery, why not simply deliver the child? Mr. Ted Koppel, the central figure in Nightline, had shown his skills over the years on almost every subject, but on the matter of abortion, he has allowed his curiosity to recede and his acuities to become dormant. Still, even Koppel could not help noticing as Sen. Boxer danced all about the question without addressing it. He remarked, in a rare display of testiness, that she could avoid the question if she wished, but she ought to have candor to acknowledge that she was evading it.

Yet, even Koppel, even here, did not wish to get too explicit with his viewers. They could hear reports on atrocities among the Kurds in Iraq, or the Moslems in Bosnia, but it was apparently not decorous to inflict on the public too precise an account of these goings-on in American clinics. And so, he put off Sen. Smith with the further observation that, after all, most Americans would be squeamish in the face of most things that went on in sur­ gical suites. He had no interest, he said, in inquiring ever more deeply into these “medical” matters.

In his usual detachment from things philosophic, Koppel fell into the more celebrated fallacies marked off by others before him. In this case, his performance offered an eerie recall of Robert Servatius, the lawyer for Adolf Eichmann in his trial in Jerusalem. At one moment Servatius referred to “the collection of skeletons, sterilizations, killings by gas, and similar medical matters.” The presiding judge interrupted: “Dr. Servatius, I assume you made a slip of the tongue when you said that killing by gas was a medical matter.” Servatius replied that “it was indeed a medical matter, since it was prepared by physicians; it was a matter of killing, and killing, too, is a medical matter.”

Thus Servatius, thus Koppel; thus the media, thus the minds of many of the educated in this country: A homicide carried out in a hospital or clinic ceases to be a homicide if it is done by a doctor. It becomes merely a “medical” procedure, and it becomes churlish for anyone else to inquire into the justifications for the “procedure.” For the government, it is nothing less than a breach of privacy and constitutional right, for it would refuse to treat these “medical” issues as the media would prefer to treat them—as questions serenely removed from the possibility of moral judgment.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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