Partial-birth abortion and Catholics

William E. May

Publication Date: November 05, 2008

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


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


1. What is 'partial-birth abortion'?

2. Legislative efforts in the United States to prohibit 'partial-birth abortion'

3. Actions taken by the Bishops of the United States

4. Concluding reflections


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 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)


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. (6)

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. (9)

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". (13)


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". (14)

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.

Educational Materials on Abortion


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.

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 • Email: