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Nineteen years ago this month, former President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act into law. The U.S. Supreme Court went on to uphold the act four years later in Gonzales v. Carhart.
Back then, few could have imagined the relatively swift downfall of
Roe v. Wade
— and with it the possibility of saving millions of lives for the first time in generations. In a crucial midterm year, it’s worth recalling the strategic lessons of the fight to end partial-birth abortion and recognizing the similar opportunity the pro-life movement has today.
Introduced in 1995, the partial-birth abortion ban took years to become law but would accomplish several goals along the way.
First, protecting children from such indefensible brutality was a worthwhile project in and of itself. Second, it flipped the script on defenders of legal abortion who hid behind euphemisms like “a woman’s right to choose.” The passionate, national debate that ensued was a massive public service, shining a spotlight on the extremism of our permissive laws under Roe v. Wade, the humanity of unborn children, and the inherent violence of every abortion.
The definition of the partial-birth abortion technique is
in federal law: “An abortion in which a physician deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living, unborn child’s body until either the entire baby’s head is outside the body of the mother, or any part of the baby’s trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother and only the head remains inside the womb, for the purpose of performing an overt act (usually the puncturing of the back of the child’s skull and removing the baby’s brains) that the person knows will kill the partially delivered infant.”
Congress rightly concluded that this is “a gruesome and inhumane procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited.” The bill passed the House overwhelmingly, with 73 Democrats joining 215 Republicans. A Senate vote the following spring was similarly bipartisan.
Third, Clinton was forced to defend vetoing the bill during the middle of his reelection campaign. The veto exposed the lie behind his famous mantra that abortion ought to be “safe, legal, and rare.” He wasn’t happy at all to be in that position. According to the Los Angeles Times, the flustered Clinton
with “voice shaking, his face flushed with anger, and his fingers jabbing the air for emphasis … in a sudden outburst that brought the presidential campaign to an unseasonably early boiling point.” His true extremism had been exposed.
To this day, the law haunts radical Democrats such as Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, who voted against it as a freshman in Congress and would like to
pretend it doesn’t exist
Yet after almost two decades, the partial-birth abortion ban remains in a class by itself. Most legislation in the pre-Dobbs era, federal or state, could only dance around the margins to avoid getting struck down by the courts. That’s why most pre-Dobbs limits on abortion have to do with informed consent, parental notification, respectful treatment of the victims’ remains, and so forth. Although legislation to limit abortion at 20 weeks, which is more than halfway through pregnancy, has passed the House several times and has garnered majority (though not filibuster-proof)
in the Senate, no significant new gestational limits on abortion have made it into federal law.
Since the Dobbs victory freed the people to have a voice in policymaking again, laws enacted in
two dozen states
could save as many as 200,000 lives a year. Still, thousands of unborn children are killed in abortions every day, more than half of them in Democratic-led states that have no meaningful limits whatsoever. Some are even working to entice women living in pro-life states to seek abortions there.
Those of us who call ourselves pro-life cannot accept this status quo, and there is no time like right now to make the case for limits on a national scale. The
women, independents, and rank-and-file Democratic voters, agree there should be some limits on abortion, putting them drastically at odds with Democrats who would mandate abortion on demand until birth in every state.
Sen. Lindsey Graham
’s (R-SC) proposal for a minimum limit on elective abortions at 15 weeks — a point by which unborn children can feel pain, and the point at which even most European countries draw a line — is a good place to start the conversation.
But regardless of what legislation pro-life elected leaders choose to coalesce around, this conversation must take place. The goal should always be to pass the most ambitious protection that can be achieved, whether that is a heartbeat bill or a federal minimum limit on late-term abortion.
This debate is long overdue. The idea that the people’s representatives in
must stand by silently and play no role in the greatest civil and human rights debate of our time is unsupported by history.
The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act is there quietly reminding us that federal action is possible. And for the sake of countless little boys and girls, we have a moral imperative to get it done.
Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.