The battle over a woman’s right to choose has become not just a matter of law, but also of language, forcing pro-choice activists into a metaphysical netherworld, having to fight, among other things, a ban on something that does not exist—”partial-birth abortion.” The term, concocted by anti-choice activists as part of an incendiary public relations campaign to persuade the public that living babies are partially delivered and then killed, is not found in any medical dictionary. We need to erase it from the public discourse.
The vagueness of the phrase means that it can include not only the rare late-term abortion we think they’re talking about, but also certain procedures done in the first and second trimesters, which are currently protected by law. It has been a diabolical public relations success. A 2000 CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll showed that 64 percent of the public favored making “partial-birth abortion” illegal (up from 55 percent in 1997), with “partial-birth abortion” being defined as “a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy.”
But the term has backfired in the courts. In most states with “partial-birth abortion” bans, the laws have been enjoined because of vague language that renders them unconstitutional. In Michigan, for example, the court concluded “the language of the definition of ‘partial-birth abortion’…is hopelessly ambiguous and not susceptible to a reasonable understanding of its meaning.” In other states the bans have been enjoined because they interfere with a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion early in pregnancy and because they don’t provide exceptions that would protect her health.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights and health research organization, almost half the women having abortions beyond 15 weeks say they were delayed because of problems in affording or getting access to abortion services. Still, more than 99 percent of all abortions in the U.S. are performed in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. And 43 percent of abortion facilities provide services only through the twelfth week. The tiny percentage of abortions performed after 20 weeks are often due to serious health risks to the woman or severe fetal abnormalities. As a Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial put it, “There’s no proof that women are ringing up their doctors in late pregnancy for whimsical elective abortions.”
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) clearly states, “The potential exists that legislation prohibiting specific medical practices…may outlaw techniques that are critical to the lives and health of American women.” ACOG fellow Dr. Paul Blumenthal points out, “When performing surgery there is no time for a call to the legislature, the Supreme Court, or anyone else in order to ascertain a statutory position or to request a waiver.”
It’s therefore literally a matter of life and death for pro-choicers to find words as powerful in preserving choice as the words “partial-birth abortion” have been in trying to destroy it. We’re losing the battle. The rubberiness of “partial-birth abortion” has allowed it to reach into the first two trimesters, which makes “late-term” an ineffective alternative. And since anti-choice language focuses on the fetus, pro-choice language should focus on the woman. It’s easy to hatch emotion-laden terms if you don’t care about accuracy. But do we really want to mimic the anti-choice linguistic legerdemain?
There may be no solution of the kind we hope for. When we nail down what anti-choice groups are trying to ban in “partial-birth abortion” laws, it is potentially all abortions.
Countless reporters, pro-choice politicians, and even activists have adopted the phrase “partial-birth abortion,” occasionally throwing “so-called” in front, to tone it down. But with a Supreme Court case on the matter pending, a federal ban that passed the U.S. House of Repres