American Outlook Today | 8.3.02
by Alan W. Dowd

Just before leaving for its August recess, Congress weighed in twice on the divisive issue of abortion. First, the Senate passed the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, H.R. 2175, which guarantees infants who have already been born full legal rights under federal law, regardless of their stage of development or whether their births occurred during an abortion. Not to be outdone, the House easily passed H.R. 4695 less than a week later. This latest effort to ban partial-birth abortion still awaits Senate action, while H.R. 2175 has already been sent to the White House. The fact that some infants will be spared thanks to H.R. 2175 is welcome news, as is the newfound momentum for criminalizing partial-birth abortion. However, the fact that legislative action is needed to protect newly born or partially born infants is a chilling commentary on the state of our culture.

We sometimes gloss over words in our image-driven society, but when we take the time to read and reflect on what words say—especially those words that become law—they tell us a lot about ourselves. H.R. 2175 is a case in point. It begins, like all legislation, with a brief explanation of the bill’s purpose. H.R.2175’s purpose is simple but stunning: “To protect infants who are born alive.” With those seven little words, the bill says more about 21st-century America than an entire almanac. Simply put, the nation has a traveled a long way since the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision.

There was a time—even after Roe—when newborn babies didn’t need a federal law to protect them from doctors and the government didn’t need to coerce doctors before they came to the aid of an infant clinging to life. If nothing else, H.R. 2175 is an indication that those days are gone. But the weakest and smallest among us are under assault long before they arrive at the birth canal. Last summer, for example, the president ignited a firestorm when he blocked federal money from being used to grow human embryos and harvest their stem cells. Without question, there is a difference between these unborn, undeveloped embryos and the newborns protected under H.R.2175, but is it any greater than the differences between a 77-year-old grandfather, a 20-year-old student and a 2-year-old toddler? Humans are continually developing and changing. That, by definition, is part of life. The grandfather was once a student. The student was once a toddler. The toddler was once a newborn. The newborn was once unborn. The unborn was once an embryo.

How did we unlearn such a fundamental truth? The answer is simple: step by step. Contrary to abortion supporters, Roe did not legalize abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy. And it certainly didn’t legalize infanticide. In fact, Justice Blackmun’s rambling and imprecise decision argues that the state’s compelling interest should be in the health of the mother “until the end of the first trimester.” According to Blackmun, that interest then begins to shift as the woman approaches term. “With respect to the state's important and legitimate interest in potential life,” he concludes, “the compelling point is at viability…because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother's womb.” In Blackmun’s view, “If the state is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period, except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.” In a strange way, his use of the word “mother” in the very decision that birthed America’s abortion industry is a tacit admission that abortion opponents have it right: It is a child. After all, there can be no mother without a child.

But the abortion lobby would not be deterred by words. Indeed, the very murkiness and haziness of the Roe decision gave abortion advocates legal cover for their erosion of the definition of life. As Justice Rehnquist predicted in his dissent, the Court’s opinion accomplished “the seemingly impossible feat of leaving this area of the law more confused than it found it.” Steadily, embryos became laboratory experiments. The second and third trimesters became as sacrosanct as the first. Abortion became the most common surgical procedure in America. And “health of the mother” became a legal loophole to justify virtually anything, from after-the-fact birth control to partial-birth abortion to post-birth infanticide. Each step relied on the previous step for justification, and with each step America valued life a little less.

Today, we extol abortion as a reproductive right, even as we support a bill designed to protect newborns who have survived abortions. Consider the perverse irony here: If the abortionist performs the procedure successfully, the child will be born dead and the abortionist will have fulfilled his responsibilities to the patient and the state. However, if he is unsuccessful and the infant is born alive, the abortionist can only fulfill his responsibilities to the patient and the state by making sure the child survives.

To justify the killing of an infant whose nine months of life have been confined to the womb, but condemn the killing of a newborn who has lived nine months inside the womb and a few seconds outside is senseless—as senseless as criminalizing partial-birth abortion and condoning every other kind. No matter what a judge or doctor says, human life has a definitive beginning and end. When we tried to redefine that beginning, we began sliding down a slippery slope. H.R. 2175 and H.R. 4695 are evidence that we have slid all the way to the bottom.