Thursday, April 19, 2007

Supreme Court backs ban on "partial birth" abortion

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, backed a Federal ban on intact dilation and extraction, a later-term abortion method. The conservative 4 plus Anthony Kennedy, a moderate, voted with the majority. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman now serving, wrote in her dissent that the decision was "alarming," and that it "cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court." Previously, several states had banned partial birth abortion, not all of them including provisions for use to save the mother's life. Multiple federal courts had found the bans unconstitutional.

Partial birth abortion is better called intact dilation and extraction. It is not used often. The same technique is used to remove a dead fetus (but this would not be banned under any of the state laws). Guttmacher institute reports that in 1996, D&X procedures accounted for only 0.03 to 0.05% of all abortions. The large majority were performed between 20 and 24 weeks gestation. Another procedure is called dilation and evacuation; it involves dismembering the fetus in the womb, and then evacuating the uterus. Most partial birth abortion bans are worded to cover this procedure as well.

It is important to realize that this is a rarely-used procedure. There are other methods of late-term abortion, and abortion in the first and second trimesters is generally legal. However, abortion rights are being eroded gradually, with parental consent laws, South Dakota's complete abortion ban, and now this. Abortion opponents generally intend to reduce abortion access gradually. American opinion is split on the issue, but a complete ban this minute would probably be opposed by a majority.

The Episcopal Church expressed "grave concern" over the use of partial-birth abortion, except in extreme situations. Is is logical to single this procedure out? The other option is inducing birth early; fetuses are generally not or borderline viable at 24 weeks and earlier. There is concern over the fetus experiencing fear and pain in partial birth abortions. And they do basically take the equivalent of a bullet to the brain. It's a quick death, and their nervous systems are rudimentary, but this is a concern. However, fetuses born by induced labor will also experience fear and pain. Should the Episcopal Church not have expressed concern over all late-term abortions? In any case, the Church has also voted to uphold reproductive rights in general; expressing grave concern over one abortion technique is not the same as saying that technique should be banned.

Expressing concern over late-term elective abortions would arguably not be a major infringement on the right to choose. These only account for a small fraction of all abortion cases. A lot of them fall surely into emergency categories, such as mother's or fetus' life in danger, and would be allowable in any case. (It should be noted that currently, most IDX procedures are performed electively, not for medical necessity.)

However, the current political climate is not friendly to the right to choose. Any sort of restriction on the right to choose could be seen as a stepping stone to further restrictions. It would be best if we left the decisions up to the women involved. I think it's also worth remembering that those who support reproductive choice would also rather abortions were used only when medically necessary, not as a means of contraception. That's why they invented the condom and the Pill. State bans on one particular abortion procedure are only one part of the story.

Recent edit: the ban that was found constitutional was a federal ban, not a state ban.

No comments: