Partial birth abortion—a procedure which its practitioners call D&E, dilatation and extraction—is once again the subject of congressional legislation that would ban the grisly act. President Clinton would appear to be in a bind with this bill, because he can hardly veto it a second time without appearing to be totally committed to feticide, or as Senator Daniel Moynihan called it, infanticide.

When Mr. Clinton vetoed the first ban last year, he produced a flurry of arguments to justify preserving this cruel procedure, chiefly the contention that it may be necessary to preserve the health and reproductive ability of the gravida. Additionally, it was alleged that the procedure is used only very rarely—scarcely 500 times per year, in the whole country, and then only in extreme cases, for situations very late in pregnancy (desperate ones, of course). Already, at the time of his veto, many eminent medical authorities, including former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a stalwart supporter of the Clintons’ abortive (if we may use this word in this connection) Health Security Plan, had denied that there is ever a medical necessity for such a technique. The American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology concurred with Dr. Koop. There were some rumbles from medical quarters about regulating “medical procedures” by law, but medical opinion almost unanimously condemns this particular procedure, which amounts to nothing less than killing a baby seconds—or inches—before it fully emerges into the world and can claim the protection of the law.

As the discussion grew more heated, and as it became evident that the new Congress would once again pass a ban omitting the “health of the mother” exception, pro-abortionists began to rally to defend the procedure, to provide covering fire for Mr. Clinton, should he again use the power of the veto to ensure the procedure’s continuation. The Chicago Tribune, ardent in its defense of “the right to choose” (to “terminate,” i.e., kill, the unborn, but of course not to smoke cigarettes), ran a front-page feature on one of the clinics offering the service in Illinois, a clinic suggestively called “Hope Center” and featuring banners proclaiming “Pro Choice-Pro Family.” The Tribune‘s article tried to turn what seemed a mortal blow to the procedure into an asset.

Ron Fitzsimmons, head of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, who had previously testified to the rarity of the procedure and averred that it is only used in extreme cases, suddenly admitted that he had “lied in my teeth,” because of his fear that the proposed ban might limit access to abortion generally. Even before Mr. Fitzsimmons recanted, the word was out that the procedure is performed much more often than 500 times a year, and used for many cases of purely elective (i.e., optional) abortions. One clinic in New Jersey alone reported performing 1,500 such abortions in one year. Walter Hern, M.D., a pioneer of the method, stated that 80 percent of his eases involved healthy women and normal fetuses, and were accordingly purely elective.

With these facts becoming common knowledge, pro-abortionists attempted to turn the situation to their advantage. With regard to the admitted gruesomeness of the operation, one New York abortionist pointed out that all major surgery—such as cancer operations—is gruesome. And as it became necessary to admit that the operation is performed frequently, on healthy women and normal fetuses, it was argued that it really is essential, as otherwise these women will be deprived of their “right to choose.” Such “covering fire” may give Mr. Clinton the (im)moral support that will enable him once again to work the will of his friends, the extreme feminists. (It should be pointed out that not all feminists favor abortion, even if the ringleaders do.) If he does veto the new bill, however, he may do the abortion cause and his own standing more harm than good.

In the same issue of the Tribune that lauded “Hope Center,” columnist Stephen Chapman exposed the inanity of the pro-abortionists’ latest defense of D&E. The argument, “It’s gruesome, but so is all surgery,” overlooks the fact that other surgeries are performed for the benefit of the one who suffers the gruesomeness, while abortion destroys its victim. As Chapman comments, other forms of abortion are also pretty gruesome, and if partial birth abortions are too gruesome to tolerate, perhaps we need to take a more critical look at all abortions. If instead of being a rare procedure partial birth abortions are a common procedure, then perhaps this is less of a reason for permitting them than for regulating the others as well.

Paradoxically, if the procedure is banned, it may take some of the heat off the controversy: “See, there are some things nobody will stand for.” But if the pro-abortionists get to keep this procedure, it may turn the public against abortion altogether. If the pro-abortionists (and President Clinton) are seen to stop at nothing, in order to have their total freedom, then the public may eventually recognize them for what they are, and write finis to this sad episode in American life. If the defenders of capital punishment insisted that it is proper to draw and quarter, or to burn at the stake, instead of resorting to the neat, painless, quasi-medical lethal injection, then it is likely that capital punishment would soon be abolished. By insisting that partial birth abortions are benevolent and necessary, the defenders of “abortion rights” may be dealing their cause a fatal blow. It would be justice.