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 by Kenneth D. Whitehead

 On March 20, 1997, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban a procedure that has come to be known as "partial-birth abortion." The house vote for this bill, HR 1122, added up to a veto-proof majority of 295 to 136. Two months later, on May 20, 1997, the U.S. Senate approved with only slight language changes the same ban, which had been introduced into the Senate by Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. The Senate approved the ban by a vote of 64 to 36--only three votes short of the two-thirds majority required to override the veto of the bill again promised by President Bill Clinton.

A year before, in April, 1996, the president had vetoed a nearly identical bill which had been passed by both houses in 1995. On September 19, 1996, the House of Representatives had easily overridden this Clinton veto by a vote of 285 to 137. But afterwhat amounted to one of the most intensive prolife lobbying efforts ever mounted--which included a massive rally on the Capitol steps on September 12, led in person by all of the nation's active Catholic cardinal-archbishops, joined by many other religious and secular leaders, and accompanied by the mailing of literally millions of individual postcards filled out in Catholic parishes--the U.S. Senate failed to override the presidential veto; the vote, on September 26, was 58 to 40--eight votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary.

The president had dared to veto the bill even though it was known to be strongly favored by over 70 percent of all Americans,according to impartial polls. Contrary to what some observers have suggested, this chameleon president does stand firm on a few issues; legalized abortion is one of them.

Partial-Birth Abortion

These medical drawings depict the partial-birth abortion procedure. They have been validated as technically accurate by medical experts on both sides of the abortion issue. The partial-birth abortion procedure is used after 20 weeks (4½ months) of pregnancy—often up to six months and later.

Guided by ultrasound, the abortionist grabs the baby's leg with forceps. The baby's leg is pulled out into the birth canal. The abortionist delivers the baby's entire body, except for the head. The abortionist jams scissors into the baby's skull. The scissors are then opened to enlarge the hole. The scissors are removed and a suction tube is inserted. The child's brain is sucked out, causing the skull to collapse. The dead baby is then removed.
Diagrams courtesy of National Right to Life

Thus failed in 1996 the first attempt to prohibit the partial-birth abortion procedure, a procedure which had sickened millions who had come to learn about it after the extensive publicity and lobbying campaigns conducted against it. The effort to ban partial-birth abortions marked the first time since the lethal practice of abortion became legalized in the United States in 1973 that large numbers of Americans had ever really been obliged toface up to what abortion itself really is.

It also marked the first time Congress had ever attempted to pass substantive legislation prohibiting any kind of abortion (as distinguished from voting to prohibit or limit government funding of it.) The momentum achieved by the effort to ban partial-birth abortions was considerable, indeed, unprecedented; and both houses in the new 105th Congress, following the November elections, promptly moved to ban the ghastly procedure a second time, as we have noted. It seemed intolerable to an increasing number of people that the first effort could have failed. If anything, the pressure on the Congress to enact, and the president to sign, a ban on partial-birth abortions became even greater after the president's veto the first time around.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the whole partial-birth abortion issue--whether the president finally gives in and signs the re-enacted bill, whether the Congress finds itself obliged to attempt another veto override, or whether another failure to override a presidential veto pushes the whole issue into yet another legislative session--regardless of the outcome in the short run, what has now become clear is that the partial-birth abortion controversy has now changed the terms of the debate over legalized abortion in the United States. The glacier has actually moved.

For around a quarter of a century, from the time the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion with its Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, prolifers have struggled with only limited success to get thecountry to focus on what abortion is: the killing of a child. In reaching its decision legalizing the practice, the Supreme Court essentially by-passed the question of the status and rights, if any, of the unborn child (dismissing with a footnote what it called "the difficult question" of when life begins). Instead, the court focused on the "woman's right" to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy.

This whole approach, focusing on the woman instead of the child, proved to be a stroke of evil genius. With the advent ofmodern contraceptives, Americans had already become massively convinced that pregnancy and child bearing were things that people had a right to be fully in control of, in short, "to choose." In this perspective, legalizing abortion merely meant extending this control over the consequences of sexual acts and making it more effective. The whole point was to make control over sexual acts more effective; there was no longer even any argument that this was permissible and desirable.

The fact that abortion also just happened to take a life, however, was tacitly passed over by the votaries of legalized abortion, as it was by public opinion generally--just as it was no doubt consciously set aside by the Supreme Court as well. Few people even blinked; it was logical, after all, if women were to be in charge of pregnancy and child birth (and if traditional morality did not count any longer as a result of the sexual revolution) then women must enjoy effective control of these things. Everybody always understood, after all, that you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, as they saying goes; and abortion certainly does insure the required degree of effective control over pregnancy and child birth, even if it is after the fact. So what if we are actually killing somebody? We have to have abortion; that is the primary thing; otherwise the whole premises of the sexual revolution would be called into question; and that is what has now become unthinkable in our society. Thus took over the crude utilitarianism which popular opinion often exhibits when it is a question of a goal which everybody has come to take for granted and which almost nobody can even imagine not being legitimate: "control" over the consequences of sexual intercourse. People attracted to each other desire to have this and they are inevitably going to have it, whatever outmoded "moralists" might think. Such is the current viewpoint.

The prolife movement sprang up immediately after the legalization of abortion to call attention to and defend the rights of the child, of course; but the American people generally proved reluctant to take the prolife side in what became an unpleasant public fight where being prolife was successfully presented as being "against women." Most Americans were prepared to live, however uncomfortably, with the contradiction that even if abortion is conceded to be wrong (as polls consistently show a majority of Americans believe), it can nevertheless sometimes be "necessary" (as the same polls show a majority of Americans also believe). It quickly turned out that many of society's leaders in many fields certainly shared these same views, if they did not view abortion as somehow even a positive good; it seemed to provide a quick answer to some otherwise seemingly intractable social problems.

So it was the prolifers who quickly became seen as tiresome by insisting that abortion wrongfully took the life of another human being, and who tried to demonstrate this irrefutably by such means as graphic color slides of dismembered fetuses or recordings of fetal heartbeats. These demonstrations reached very few people; and failed to persuade more than a very few. People reacted against them, in fact, and against all the aggressive and horrible accusations prolifers kept insisting on bringing forward into an otherwise calm and peaceful situation. It was the prolifers themselves who were seen as rocking the boat; they soon became identified and stigmatized as "harsh," "judgmental," "mean-spirited," and "fanatical." In today's permissive society, they became labeled as the "extremists" merely for trying to get people to face up to an ugly reality that most people did not want to face up to--indeed, were quite determined not to face up to.

Having the option of legally terminating unwanted pregnancies was widely seen as simply too helpful and too expedient to allow any serious questions to be raised about it. And had not the highest legal authority in the land, the Supreme Court, decided the question anyway? And had not this decision, in effect, been "democratically" ratified by the American people by the very fact that the prolife movement, after nearly a quarter of century of agitation, had been unable to come even close to persuading a majority of Americans to outlaw abortion again? Why should anybody go on tormenting himself and others about a question that had been "settled" at the highest level?

Then, in September, 1992, an Ohio doctor named Martin Haskell presented a paper at a "Risk Management Seminar" in Dallas, Texas, sponsored by the National Abortion Federation. In his paper the doctor described a new abortion technique he had been using. This technique, which he called a D & X (for dilation and extraction) procedure, was one expressly designed for abortions at mid- and later stages of a pregnancy. Dr. Haskell indicated that he himself had carried out the procedure more than 700 times. Using seaweed-based dilators such as are used in other types of later-term abortions, Dr. Haskell first dilated the woman's cervix over a painful three-day period to enable the already well- developed baby to be removed intact--rather than being dismembered inside the womb and removed piece by piece, as is the case in regular D & E (dilation and evacuation) late-term abortions. Then, guided by a sonogram, Dr. Haskell, as he explained in his Dallas paper, carefully grasped the baby's foot with forceps and pulled the entire body out with the exception of the head. At this point, he punctured the baby's skull with surgical scissors and inserted a catheter, or vacuum tube, attached to a suction machine in order to suck the brains out. The dead baby with collapsed skull was then brought out completely into the air.

Among the advantages of this procedure, as Dr. Haskell's exposition brought out, is that the abortionist does not have to collect and identify all the bloody dismembered body parts and insure that they have all been removed. Also, the procedure definitely insures a dead baby--something the saline solutions or prostaglandin drugs often used to kill the baby in utero before late-term abortions occasionally fail to do, to the obvious discomfort of the abortionist. The abortionist, at all costs, has to deliver a dead, not a still-living, baby.

In today's era of legalized abortion, a ghastly procedure such as this is not only resorted to by licensed practitioners, whatever the larger public may prefer to believe or imagine about abortion; it is also considered to be an entirely fit subject for discussion or publication in medical journals as just one more "medical procedure." In its issue of July 5, 1993, American Medical News, the official newspaper of the American Medical Association (AMA), interviewed Dr. Haskell about the procedure, along with another physician who regularly employed the same procedure--and who indeed was said to have originally developed the procedure--the late Dr. James McMahon of Los Angeles. Dr. Haskell indicated that he performed the procedure at about 20 weeks--the mid-point of a pregnancy--up through about 26 weeks. Dr. McMahon said he performed the procedure all the way up to 40 weeks, or full term. Dr. Haskell frankly admitted that about 80 per cent or more of the abortions he performed in this manner were purely "elective," that is, they were not done for any "medical" reasons whatsoever pertaining either to the mother or the child. Dr. McMahon, who stated that he had carried out as many as 2000 of these operations, did not admit that the ones he had done were "elective." However, his definition of "non-elective" included such stated "reasons" as the mother's "youth" or her "depression."

Information submitted by Dr. McMahon to a congressional committee indicated that most of the babies he aborted at 26 weeks or later were perfectly normal and healthy babies. As public awareness grew concerning the medical procedures these physicians were resorting to, both Dr. Haskell and Dr. McMahon were invited to testify before the House Constitution Subcommittee (of the House Judiciary Committee) by the committee's chairman, Florida Republican Rep. Charles Canady. The latter would continue to be one of the most important figures in Congress working against partial-birth abortions. Initially, both abortionists accepted the invitation to testify before Congress; obviously, they did not see anything wrong in what they were doing; they were both doing it, and they were also candidly describing what they were doing. In the end, however, as the public controversy began to heat up, Dr. Haskell cancelled out on his date with Congress, and Dr. McMahon simply failed to appear to testify. It was left to such shills in the Congress itself as Rep. Barney Frank (D.-Mass.) or Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D.-Colo.) to argue at the Canady hearings that Congress had no business legislating about how these licensed physicians were choosing to practice medicine, or, indeed, "interfering" in the practice of medicine in any way.

This latter argument, that the government had no right to interfere in the practice of medicine, was to be a litany often repeated in the course of the subsequent debates; few pointed out how little sense such an argument makes in the era of Medicare, Medicaid, and the attempts by the Clinton Administration and, increasingly, by the Congress itself, to federalize "the practice of medicine" entirely. Moreover, where the partial-birth abortion procedure was concerned, it turned out that the public was going to be exhibiting a somewhat greater capacity for shock and disapproval than some members of the medical profession or of Congress. The method involved in doing partial-birth abortions actually began to get to some people when it was brought out what it really entailed. As early as February 23, 1993, the National Right to Life News had published a meticulous expos‚ of Dr. Haskell's September, 1992, "How To" partial-birth abortion paper delivered at the National Abortion Federation's "Risk Management Seminar" in Dallas. This expos‚ was accompanied by a series of black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings illustrating the procedure step by step.

These drawings, from the February, 1993, issue of Life Advocate, were destined to play a dramatic and continuing part in the campaign against partial-birth abortions--which the NRLC had, in effect, launched with its expos‚ of Dr. Haskell's paper. The drawings came to be used in countless ads sponsored by the NRLC in the course of its campaign, and they were widely reproduced. Although the accuracy of the drawings would be challenged many times in the months and years to follow, even Dr. Haskell admitted in his American Medical News interview that the drawings were "accurate from a medical point of view." The drawings were very important from another point of view, one that perhaps had not been originally foreseen. For years the prolife movement has tried to get across the horror of abortion by showing pictures or slides of dismembered fetuses or those burned by saline solutions.

Too often, however, these grisly slides or pictures (like fetuses in jars) have simply turned people off and caused them to react negatively against the very prolifers who were exhibiting such obviously horrible and offensive stuff in public. Those who have tried to combat pornography by themselves bringing forward graphic examples of it have similarly sometimes seen the blame for it boomerang back upon themselves. The pen-and-ink drawings of the partial-birth abortion procedure, however, succeeded in graphically conveying the full horror of what was being done to a human child, but without turning viewers against the very ads which featured such graphic illustrations. At any rate, as it proved, most people did not react to the same extent that viewers normally react to other such graphic materials. Accidently or intentionally, the use of these black-and-white drawings by the NRLC in its ads was a stroke of genius. Not only were the drawings to prove important in alerting the public to just what was passing as an acceptable medical procedure; the very name "partial-birth abortion" seems to have been crucially important in garnering support for the outlawing of at least this barbaric abortion procedure, regardless of the fact that the Supreme Court had decreed abortion to be a "woman's right." In fact, it turned out that the name "partial-birth abortion" was going to stick, even though the proabortion people regularly went on characterizing it as "what opponents call 'partial-birth abortion.'"

You yourself have probably heard that phrase on the evening news more than once by now. However, as the National Right to Life News correctly pointed out (November 30, 1995): "None of the terms that the abortion practitioners prefer would be workable as a legal definition. The bill creates a legal definition...'an abortion in which the person performing the abortion partially vaginally delivers a living fetus before killing the fetus and completing the delivery...'" Whatever the reasons, then, more and more Americans evidently did become bothered by the barbarity of the method as well as, increasingly, by the dishonesty and hypocrisy resorted to in order to defend the indefensible in the case of this procedure. The idea that a doctor could deliver a baby almost completely before killing him or her in such a gruesome fashion at the very last minute did finally persuade some people that maybe America really had finally gone too far with legalized abortion.

A formerly consistent antilife legislator such as Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (D.- New York) went so far as to label the procedure "infanticide" (but as Dr. Haskell had carefully explained in his American Medical News interview, the aim of the procedure is always that "you're attempting to do an abortion." What did Senator Moynihan expect?). Another senator who had unsuccessfully tried to mount an entire presidential campaign on a proabortion platform, Senator Arlen Specter (R.-Pennsylvania), similarly came out against partial-birth abortions. The National Right to Life Committee devised a series of newspaper ads--always employing the black-and-white line drawings-- which proved to be very dramatic and effective way of getting across exactly what a partial-birth abortion consisted of. In addition to the drawings, these ads also included excerpts from the dramatic testimony before Congress of an Ohio nurse, Brenda Pratt Shafer, who had witnessed three of Dr. Haskell's "procedures"--and as a consequence had become passionately opposed to the practice.

As the NRLC ads proclaimed, this is what Nurse Shafer saw: I stood at the doctor's side and watched him perform a partial-birth abortion on a woman who was six months pregnant. The baby's heartbeat was clearly visible on the ultrasound screen. The doctor delivered the baby's body and arms, everything but his little head. The baby's body was moving. His little fingers were clasping together. He was kicking his feet. The doctor took a pair of scissors and inserted them into the back of the baby's head, and the baby's arms jerked out in a flinch, a startled reaction, like a baby does when he thinks he might fall. Then the doctor opened the scissors up. Then he stuck the high-powered suction tube into the hole and sucked the baby's brains out. Now the baby was completely limp. I never went back to the clinic. But I am still haunted by the face of that little boy. It was the most perfect, angelic face I have ever seen." Such was the personal testimony of Nurse Brenda Pratt Shafer. It was hard to accuse her of deliberately sensationalizing the issue (although many did anyway); she was merely describing what she had seen. The NRLC ads also included a statement by Dr. Pamela Smith, Director of Medical Education in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago. This statement declared that: "there are absolutely no obstetrical situations encountered in this country which require a partially delivered human fetus to be destroyed to preserve the health of the mother."

For the first time since abortion was legalized in America, the truth about what abortion is and what it entails was finally gotten across to significant numbers of Americans and their legislators through the publicity that was generated by the expos‚ of this particular procedure. In the protracted public controversy that has surrounded the whole question ever since, the proabortion forces have, finally, been mainly on the defensive--after almost a quarter of a century of legalized abortion. Subsequent frantic attempts to pretend that the baby would already have to be dead from the anesthesia before his skull was pierced, for example, had already been refuted by Dr. Haskell's own express words. It soon became widely recognized that the proabortionists were indeed trying to defend the indefensible; even many of those engaged in doing it tacitly conceded the point; but the fact that the proabortionists could actually defend even partial-birth abortions finally brought home to an increasing number of Americans who the real "extremists" and "fanatics" on the abortion issue were.

Thus, on November 1, 1995, for the first time since Roe v. Wade was handed down, the House voted by a more than two-to-one margin (288 to 139) to ban this type of abortion procedure. Adding language (in reality meaningless) that the ban does not apply to a partial-birth abortion necessary to save the life of a mother, provided that no other procedure would suffice, the Senate followed suit on December 7, 1995, by a vote of 54 to 44--13 short of the majority of 65 needed to override a presidential veto. The only problem for the growing number of people and their legislators now opposed to allowing partial-birth abortions, of course, was that the President of the United States was among those proabortionists still obstinately and reflexively prepared to defend the practice regardless of the growing opposition to it. II. In order to provide some modicum of cover for his veto of the partial-birth abortion ban passed by both houses of Congress, President Bill Clinton decided to invite to his veto session at the White House on April 10, 1996, five women who were described as having undergone partial-birth abortions by Los Angeles Doctor James McMahon (who himself had died suddenly in October, 1995).

The president described these five women as representative of ...a small but extremely vulnerable group of women and families in this country...just a few hundred a year...They all desperately wanted their children. They didn't want abortions. They made agonizing decisions only when it became clear that their babies would not survive. Their own lives, their health, and, in some cases, their capacity to have children in the future were in danger... It all sounded so sincere; it seemed motivated by nothing but compassion for the well-being of this "vulnerable" group of women; it certainly played to the typical television audience. Yet, as far as one can judge from the state of the art in contemporary medicine, it was all nothing but a sustained and elaborate lie constructed entirely out of whole cloth. In the nature of the case, there is no evidence that partial-birth abortions were medically indicated in any of these cases, any more than abortions of any kind were medically indicated. As the television cameras rolled, the women themselves nevertheless told stories about how they had learned late in their pregnancies that their babies were suffering from grave disorders for which Dr. McMahon's procedure supposedly provided the only remedy (it certainly could not have been much of a "remedy" for the babies, whatever their condition that had only been learned about "late in pregnancy"). And, in any case, as we have noted, none of these stories could possibly have been true; these "vulnerable" women had been suborned by the President of the United States to lend themselves to a shameless public fraud.

Ample medical testimony has long since been brought forward to prove that partial-birth abortions are never necessary, whatever these poor women may have been told. It is a procedure elected by the abortionist, and, if anything, it is the procedure itself that could be harmful to the woman, since, for one thing, the abortionist has to probe blindly to find the base of the baby's skull; he could always miss, and inflict damage on the woman. For another thing, the cervix of the woman has to be severely dilated, with possible harmful effects resulting. The television audience was never informed, for example, that one of the five women testifying had had five miscarriages as a result of undergoing this procedure (perhaps the president himself was not informed about this). Inconvenient facts such as these had nevertheless become quite well known by the time this broadcast featuring the president himself was aired. A group calling itself the Physicians' Ad Hoc Coalition for Truth (PHACT) had long since come forward with exact knowledge refuting the claim that partial-birth abortions had anything to do with "medicine" at all. The membership of PHACT quickly rose to include some 600 practicing physicians. The following excerpt was a typical PHACT answer to the proabortionist claim that partial-birth abortions could be "necessary" to protect a woman's "health": That claim is totally and completely false. Contrary to what abortion activists would have us believe, partial-birth abortion is never medically indicated to protect a woman's health or fertility. In fact, the opposite is true: the procedure can pose a significant and immediate threat to both the pregnant woman's health and her fertility... None of this risk is ever necessary for any reason.

We and many other doctors across the U.S. regularly treat women whose unborn children suffer the same conditions as those cited by the women who appeared at Mr. Clinton's veto ceremony. Never is the partial-birth procedure necessary...Sometimes, as in the case of hydrocephaly, it is first necessary to drain some of the fluid from the baby's head. And in some cases, when vaginal delivery is not possible, a doctor performs a Caesarean section. But in no case is it necessary to partially deliver any infant through the vagina and then kill the infant. None of these facts appears to have affected President Clinton, however. Unfortunately, this president, by the very fact that he was still in office, had already had ample experience of how ready the American public can be to accept almost any excuse rather than face up to what America has become as a result of legalized abortion. In his formal veto message to Congress, although he acknowledged that the bill already contained a "life exception," President Clinton declared that he would still not sign such a bill unless it also allowed partial-birth abortions to be performed for "health" reasons as well.

The actual words of the President's veto message included the following: "The procedure described in HR 1833 has troubled me deeply as it has many people. I cannot support the use of that procedure on an elective basis...That is why I implored Congress to add on an exception for the small number of compelling cases...The life exception in the current bill only covers cases where the doctor believes that the woman will die. It fails to cover cases where, absent the procedure, serious physical harm, including losing the ability to have more children, is very likely to occur." Like the president's remarks concerning the five women who "had to have" partial-birth abortions, this veto message also seemed very sincere.

However, in addition to the medically established fact that, as we have seen, there aren't any medical or "health" reasons for any partial-birth abortions, ever--in addition to this medically established fact, it is also true that the Supreme Court of the United States, in its 1973 Doe v. Bolton case, has long since in any case decided that "health," in the context of abortion, includes "all factors--physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age--relevant to the well- being of the patient." The law thus understands "health" to be anything an abortionist decides it is--something the president surely also knows very well, since he is a graduate of the Yale Law School, after all In other words, a "health" exception to any abortion bill means that an abortion could be performed for any reason a woman along with her doctor decides is a "health" reason. In yet other words, an abortion can be done if a women simply decides she does not want the baby--for, in that case, being "forced" to have it would cause distress and hence affect her "mental health." In practice, a "health exception" simply nullifies anything else a law purporting to restrict or prohibit abortion says.

Nobody today questions or second-guesses anything a medical practitioner asserts is a question of "health." Under Doe v. Bolton's definition of health, abortions have effectively been and are being done for any reason or for no reason, at any stage of a pregnancy. This has been true since 1973--the year both Doe and Roe were issued. Anybody who has seriously looked into the contemporary abortion situation in America today knows this to be the case: abortions are being performed today on a massive scale for any reason or for no reason at any stage of pregnancy simply because the woman does not want the baby. President Clinton's assumption, however, is that the American public either does not know this or does not want to know it; hence he is apparently not bothered in the least by proclaiming bare-faced lies on the subject as truths; he thinks, and apparently correctly, that he is perfectly safe as far as the American people is concerned in babbling about his concern for the "health" of women. He repeated more than once his claim that all he wanted in a bill to sign was "an exception for women who would face severe physical damage." He even plaintively asked a reporter in May, 1996: "Why wouldn't [the Republicans] accept that minor amendment?"

After his re-election in November, 1996, at a press conference on December 13, 1996, Bill Clinton re-iterated that: I wanted to sign that legislation. When I first heard about it, I thought I would sign it...The problem is, I will say it again, there are a few hundred women every year who have personally agonizing situations...Now I pleaded and pleaded with the Congress to adopt highly restrictive language which would make it clear that there had to be a very serious health problem for the woman involved. During the 1996 presidential campaign, Clinton had written about partial-birth abortion to the Southern Baptist Convention that "in situations where a woman's serious health interests are not at risk, I do not support [them], I do not defend them, and I would sign appropriate legislation banning them." The reality about what the president supports and what he does turned out to be two very different things, however. Meanwhile, the national campaign against partial-birth abortions had achieved so much momentum, despite the standard lies and disinformation about abortion being parroted even by the president himself, that his veto of HR 1833 produced not more typical sorrowing prolife resignation, but rather a groundswell of further protests against both the mendacity and barbarity of it all.

The president of the Christian Life Commission of the 16- million-member Southern Baptist Convention, Richard D. Land, was compelled to say concerning Clinton's veto that "the president has now made it unmistakably clear that there is no circumstance...in which he will make it illegal for the mother to instruct the doctor to kill the child." The Southern Baptist Convention, of course, is the denomination to which President Clinton belongs (he seems to take his religion about as seriously as many of the Kennedys seem to take theirs).

Just as they would later lead a rally on the Capitol steps in support of a veto override, all of the active Catholic cardinal- archbishops of the United States, along with the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, signed a scorching letter to the president dated April 16, 1996, in which they told him: "Your veto of this bill is beyond comprehension for those who hold human life sacred."They bluntly challenged the president's reference to the "health" exception he said he wanted by reminding him that "not everyone...would know that 'health,' as the courts define it in the context of abortion means virtually anything that has to do with a woman's overall 'well-being." They re-iterated the point, already made many times by others, that it was the partial-birth abortion procedure itself that might constitute a danger to the health of a woman undergoing it.

And in the days following President Clinton's veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban bill on April 10, 1996, dozens of Catholic bishops, not content with what the cardinals and the NCCB had said, sent in their own individual protests and/or issued their own strong statements against partial-birth abortions to their flocks. Many other religious leaders did the same. A strong statement calling for a veto override issued by the National Prolife Religious Council was signed by 29 religious leaders from the Orthodox, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Lutheran, Evangelical, Baptist, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and Episcopal Churches. This statement surely added considerable weight to what leaders of the "religious right" such as Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed had been saying all along.

Similarly, the Rabbinical Alliance of America called partial-birth abortion "truly a barbaric act not far removed from infanticide." Even the politicians found themselves able to speak more plainly than usual where partial-birth abortion was concerned. Bob Dole, well along in his presidential campaign by April, 1996, nevertheless forthrightly said that "a partial-birth abortion blurs the line between abortion and infanticide."Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey said he was "appalled that the president [was] willing to allow nearly-born children to be killed by this hideous procedure." Even President Clinton's own ambassador to the Vatican, Massachusetts Democratic politician Raymond Flynn, urged the president "in the strongest possible terms" to let the ban become law--especially after the Vatican issued a statement against Clinton's veto "about as strong as I have ever seen," Flynn remarked.

In short, there was a huge and continuous outpouring against the Clinton veto which went far beyond the usual Washington lobbying effort. This was not an issue that was easily going to be put to rest. Indeed the nation's capital had rarely seen anything like it in the memory of most knowledgeable observers. Nevertheless, all the pressure proved insufficient in the end to overcome the president's calculated opposition to any restriction on legalized abortion. As we have noted, even while the House handily overrode the veto, the override effort fell short by eight votes in the Senate. Prolifers had to resign themselves to prepare for yet another legislative session--but with perhaps more grounds for hope than had been the case since abortion was first legalized in the United States.

Kenneth D. Whitehead has been following political developments on the abortion front for Culture Wars and other publications.


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