What is partial-birth abortion?

By William E. May

1. What is 'partial-birth abortion'?


The procedure in question is properly called "partial-birth abortion" because, as even secular sources acknowledge, it requires the doctor to deliver the unborn child partially from the uterus, feet first, leaving the baby's head inside the womb. The doctor then uses scissors and a hollow needle to empty the skull of its contents. The unborn baby's head then collapses and the doctor removes the dead baby entirely from the mother's body. (1) Given the nature of the procedure, the congressmen who drafted legislation to prohibit it, the "Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 1995", defined the procedure as follows: "an abortion in which the person performing the abortion partially vaginally delivers a living fetus before killing the fetus and completing the delivery". (2)


The doctors who perform this barbaric act and those who seek to justify it attempt to hide its nature by describing it euphemistically as "intact dilation and evacuation/extraction" or as "intrauterine cranial decompression". (3) The procedure is usually performed on unborn children suffering from hydrocephaly, Down's syndrome or other anomalies whose mothers are suffering maternal depression on learning that their unborn children suffer from such problems or on unborn children whose mothers are undergoing major life crises. (4)


The claim is sometimes made - and it was made by President Clinton in his veto of legislation to prohibit this form of abortion - that this procedure is necessary at times to protect the life and health of the mother or to preserve her fertility. But as the "Physicians Ad Hoc Coalition for Truth" (PHACT), a group of more than 300 medical specialists organized to counter the misinformation provided by the abortion industry of the United States, pointed out: "Partial-birth abortion is never medically necessary to protect the health of a woman or to protect her future fertility; in fact, the procedure can pose grave dangers to the woman". (5)



1. This description of the procedure was given in many secular sources favorable to abortion. Here, for example, I have simply summarized a description given in the pro-abortion newspaper The Boston Globe, in its 24 October 1996 edition, p. A29.

2. This is the precise language used in a bill officially reckoned as "HR [for House of Representatives] 1833" in the "Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 1995".

3. One of the leading advocates of the procedure, Dr Martin Haskell, describes it as "intact dilation and evacuation/extraction", while another leading practitioner, Dr James McMahon, preferred to describe it as "intrauterine cranial decompression". On this, see, for example, Germain Kopaczynski, O.F.M. Conv., "Partial-Birth Abortion", Ethics and Medics, 21.12 (December, 1996) 1.

4. See ibid.

5. Ibid., n. 2.


Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology, John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, USA

L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 1 September 1999, pp. 6-7.

Printed with permission from Priests for Life.

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