Partial-birth abortion and Catholics
L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 1
September 1999, pp. 6-7.
by William E. May
Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral
Theology, John Paul II Institute for Studies on
Marriage and Family, Washington, USA
Since 1973 and the infamous Roe v. Wade decision of the Supreme Court
of the United States, abortion throughout the duration of pregnancy is legally
permissible. It is allowed even during the final three months of pregnancy if
this is thought necessary by the mother and her doctor to protect her health,
including her mental and emotional health. Recently there were two opportunities
for the Congress of the United States of America to offer some protection
to unborn human life by enacting a law forbidding a particularly heinous form of
abortion known as "partial-birth abortion". Unfortunately, as we shall see,
these opportunities came to naught in large measure because some Catholic
legislators refused to offer this protection to unborn babies. Here, after
briefly describing the nature of "partial-birth abortion", I will summarize the
efforts by American lawmakers to make it a criminal activity and the key role
played by Catholic senators in preventing these efforts from taking
effect. I will examine recent steps taken by the Bishops of the United States to
defend innocent human life, in particular the life of the unborn, and to remind
Catholic legislators, in no uncertain terms, of their grave responsibilities in
this area. In conclusion I will offer some reflections on the matter.
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
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
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".
2. Legislative efforts in the United States to
prohibit 'partial-birth abortion'
In 1995 the House of Representatives of the United States Congress (with
over 400 members ) introduced a bill to prohibit partial-birth abortion. The
bill was approved by an overwhelming majority on 1 November 1995. On 7
December 1995, the Senate (with 100 members, two from each of the 50 states)
voted by a substantial majority to support the legislation, amended to
include an exception in the event that the procedure was judged absolutely
necessary to save the mother's life. But President Clinton vetoed the bill
on 10 April 1996. The bill could still, however, become the law of the land
if both of the houses of Congress voted by a two-thirds majority to override
the President's veto. The House of Representatives did so, and by a greater
than two-thirds majority voted to override Clinton's veto later that year.
On 26 September 1996, 57 of the 100 senators also voted to override
Clinton's veto, but 41 voted to sustain it, while 2 senators abstained.
Although a majority of the senators voted to override, Clinton's veto was
upheld because of the failure to achieve a two-thirds majority or 67 votes
to override. Of the 41 senators who upheld Clinton's veto and thus voted to
keep partial-birth abortion legal eight were Catholics.
In 1997, when a newly elected Congress convened, a new
"Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act", "HR 1122", was introduced by members of
the House of Representatives, and on 20 March 1997 an overwhelming majority
of House members voted in favor of this pro-life bill. On 20 May 1997 the
Senate by a large majority approved the bill. But on 10 October 1997
President Clinton again vetoed the legislation. His veto was again
overridden by a greater than two-thirds majority of the members of the House
of Representatives in 1998, and on 18 September 1998, 64 senators also voted
to override Clinton's veto, while 36 senators voted to sustain it. The
senate vote thus fell three votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to
override Clinton's veto. Among the 36 senators who refused to override
Clinton's veto and thus voted to keep this barbaric form of abortion legal
in the United States were 10 Catholics!
(7) Had only three of these 10 Catholic senators joined the
great majority of their colleagues in both houses of Congress to override
Clinton's veto, this bill, urgently needed to protect unborn children from a
particularly barbaric form of abortion, would have become law and
partial-birth abortion would now be a criminal offence in the United States.
Tragically, because of the failure of these Catholic senators to do what lay
in their power to protect the unborn from this cruel death, partial-birth
abortion is still legally permitted in the United States and is carried out
many times a day.
3. Actions taken by the Bishops of the United States
With respect to partial-birth abortion, note must be made of two major
actions taken by the Bishops of the United States.
The first of these was a statement entitled "Stand Up for Life", issued on 20
June 1996, after Clinton's veto of the first "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act"
but prior to congressional efforts to override the veto. Adopted unanimously by
the Bishops on the first day of their 20-22 June 1996 meeting, the statement
declared that partial-birth abortion is a particularly heinous and violent way
of killing an infant during the process of birth. The Bishops then noted that
"Congress voted to stop this shameful practice. However," they continued
"because the President vetoed the bill partial-birth abortion - more truly a
form of infanticide - continues in our country". They then concluded, "we urge
the Congress of the United States to override the President's veto of the
Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act". (8)
The second action taken by the Bishops of the United States is a
much more extensive and forceful defense of innocent human life and a firm
reminder to Catholics in positions of leadership, in particular, those
holding political and legislative authority, to do all that lies within
their power to repudiate abortion and to provide legal protection to the
lives of the unborn. This step was taken by the Bishops at the annual
meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops during their November
1998 general meeting when they overwhelmingly approved a document entitled
Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics.
This episcopal document has particular relevance to
partial-birth abortion and the responsibilities of Catholics in public
office, in particular, legislators. Referring obliquely to the specious
efforts of President Clinton and those congressmen who refused to override
his veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Bishops declared: "Bad
law and defective reasoning produce the evasive language used to justify
evil. Nothing else", they said, "can explain the verbal and ethical
gymnastics required by elected officials (emphasis added) to justify
their support for partial-birth abortion, a procedure in which infants are
brutally killed during the process of delivery".
(10) In this document the Bishops, "in a special way",
called "on U.S. Catholics, especially those in positions of leadership -
whether cultural, economic, or political - to recover their identity
as followers of Jesus Christ and to be leaders in the renewal of American
respect for the sanctity of life.... No one, least of all someone who
exercises leadership in society, can rightfully claim to share fully and
practically the Catholic faith and yet act publicly in a way contrary to
that faith". (11)
Pointedly singling out elected Catholic officials, the Bishops
affirmed that "Catholics who are privileged to serve in public leadership
positions have an obligation to place their faith at the heart of their
public service, particularly on issues regarding the sanctity and dignity of
human life." (12) They then
declared: "We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from the
Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to
consider the consequences for their own spiritual well-being, as well as the
scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to
reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public office and presenting
themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of
human life are not in agreement with Church teaching". Concluding this
passage they then solemnly proclaimed: "No public official, especially one
claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can reasonably advocate for
or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life.... no appeal to
policy, procedure, majority will or pluralism ever excuses a public official
from defending life to the greatest extent possible".
4. Concluding reflections
The November 1998 statement of the U.S. Bishops, Living the Gospel of
Life, was promulgated after the U.S. Senate had failed, for a second
time, to override Clinton's veto of the "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act". It
was thus made public after the 10 Catholic senators had refused to offer
unborn human life the protection this bill provided and had, by doing so,
cooperated in the killing of some unborn children by this gruesomely
barbaric form of abortion. But prior to the promulgation of this strong
defense of innocent human life and clear articulation of the grave moral
obligation of legislators to defend innocent human life, the U.S. Bishops,
along with Pope John Paul II, had time and time again vigorously spoken out
on the issue, reminding all Catholics, and particularly those in positions
of political and legislative authority, of their duties.
There can be no doubt that Catholic legislators, whether, members of the U.S.
Senate or House of Representatives or of state and local legislative bodies,
also give grave scandal to others by their willed refusal to do what lies in
their power to protect innocent human life. Some, in defending their action,
make use of the "defective reasoning" and "evasive language" so rightly
excoriated by the Bishops, as we have seen, in Living the Gospel of Life.
Others, as the Bishops noted in this excellent document, "have adopted the
argument that, while they personally oppose evils like abortion, they cannot
force their religious views onto a wider society". But, as the Bishops pointedly
note in the same document, "this is seriously mistaken on several key counts.
First, regarding abortion, the point when human life begins is not a religious
belief but a scientific fact - a fact on which there is clear agreement even
among leading abortion advocates. Second, the sanctity of human life is not
merely Catholic doctrine but part of humanity's global ethical heritage and our
nation's founding principle. Finally, democracy is not served by silence....
Real pluralism depends on people of conviction struggling vigorously to advance
their beliefs by every ethical and legal means at their disposal".
The issue is clear. Catholic political leaders and legislators
who, like the U.S. senators who refused to override President Clinton's veto
of a bill designed to protect unborn children from a particularly heinous
and barbaric form of abortion, fail to "stand up for human life" and to do
what lies in their power to protect the inviolability of innocent human life
act publicly in a way contrary to their Catholic faith. Thus they cannot, as
the Bishops clearly declare, "rightfully claim to share fully and
practically the Catholic faith". (15)
Although they may not be formally excommunicated, they have, as it were, cut
themselves off from their Catholic faith and, in presenting themselves to
the voting public ought not to give scandal and identify themselves as
Catholics. By doing so they give grave scandal to others. They have been
adequately reminded by their pastors of their serious moral responsibilities
and have freely chosen to cooperate formally in the perpetuation of
legislation that is barbaric and evil. Only God can judge their hearts, but
it is imperative publicly to denounce their actions and to refuse to support
them, for by supporting them one in effect cooperates in a grave evil.
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.
6. The eight Catholic senators who voted to uphold
Clinton's veto and thus voted in favor of partial-birth abortion were: Thomas
Daschle, Christopher Dodd, Thomas Harkin, Edward Kennedy, John Kerry, Barbara
Mikulski, Carol Moseley-Braun and Patty Murray.
7. When this vote was taken, Thomas Daschle, who had
upheld Clinton's veto in 1996, to his credit this time voted to override his
veto and make the bill prohibiting partial-birth abortion legal. However,
Senators Dodd, Harkin, Kennedy, Kerry, Mikulski, Moseley-Braun and Murray who
had earlier sustained Clinton's veto, again refused to override it and afford
some protection to unborn children. And to their number were added three new
Catholic senators who had been elected in November 1996, namely Susan Collins,
Richard Durbin and Jack Reed.
8. This statement of the U.S. Bishops, "Stand Up for
Human Life", can be found in Origins: CNS Documentary Service 26.7 (4
July 1996) 110.
9. This document was published in November 1998 by
the United States Catholic Conference in Washington, DC.
10. Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to
American Catholics, n. 12.
11. Ibid., n. 7, emphasis added.
12. Ibid., n. 31, emphasis in original.
13. Ibid., n. 32.
14. Ibid., n. 24, emphasis in original.
15. Ibid., n. 7.