In the Waiting Room

By Pollitt, Katha | The Nation, April 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

In the Waiting Room


Pollitt, Katha, The Nation


"We are in a funding emergency today," read the e-mail from the New York Abortion Access Fund. Four women, who had come to New York City for second-trimester abortions unavailable in their home states, were about to be sent home because, despite heroic efforts, a clinic social worker had been unable to raise enough money to pay for their procedures, which cost between $1,600 and $2,000. Belinda, from Maryland, needed $750 more. Miranda, from Philadelphia, needed $595 more. Evelynne, from Maryland, needed $445 more. Karina, a 15-year-old rape victim from Massachusetts, needed $1,500 more. The women (these are not their real names) had traveled long distances and had spent the night hoping against hope that the money would be found: At twenty-three weeks, this was their last chance.

Belinda, Miranda, Evelynne and Karina are the human face of the current Congressional debate over "partial-birth abortion," a term invented by anti-choicers that has no precise medical meaning and cannot be found in any medical text. Yet it has obtained wide currency thanks to the media, which, whether out of laziness or ignorance or fear of seeming too liberal, use it far more often than such terms as "dilation and extraction" and "dilation and evacuation," which describe actual methods used in second- and third-term abortions. (A recent Nexis search found that over the past six months, "partial birth" was used 427 times, while "dilation and extraction" was used only 32 times.) The oxymoronic "partial-birth abortion," with accompanying gory description-crushed skull, sucked-out brains, half-delivered fetus-was a stroke of public relations genius; another is the phrase "late term."

When is "late term"? Well, it's when you have a "partial-birth abortion." It is, in other words, a foggy expression that intentionally conflates the second trimester of pregnancy, when according to Roe v. Wade, abortion can be regulated before viability only to safeguard the woman's health, and the third trimester, when abortion can legally be banned except to preserve the woman's life or health. By this sleight of hand, "late term" suggests that most secondtrimester fetuses are viable (although they almost never are, except at the very end) and paints "partial-birth abortions" as legal infanticide. Thus the anti-choicers reframe themselves as the commonsensical moderates and prochoicers as the callous extremists.

Going after "partial-birth abortion" is a brilliant tactic. The phrase doesn't insult the pregnant woman the way "convenience abortion," "abortion as birth control" and "abortion as murder" do, implying that women get pregnant out of laziness and kill on a whim; and a ban appears to affect only the kind of abortion a woman can have, not whether she gets to have one at all. But the smoke and mirrors of "partial-birth abortion" language may be used to limit many common abortion procedures.

Propaganda works: There is some evidence from polls that young women are more likely to oppose legal abortion than comparable women even ten years ago, and, according to an anecdotal but suggestive feature story in the New York Times ("Surprise, Mom, I'm Against Abortion," March 30), the furor over "partial-birth abortion" is one reason.

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