Case Overview, Late-term Abortion

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over the ban on late-term abortions. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.

           It's hard to think of a more successful example of changing the literal terms of a policy debate than the anti-abortion groups' redefinition of late-term abortions as "partial birth abortions." "Partial birth" is not a medical term but interest groups working against abortion have made it the most commonly used label to describe those abortions conducted at advanced states of pregnancy. The most common reasons for late-term abortions are complications with the pregnancy, or because teenagers are late in recognizing or acknowledging that they are pregnant. In the language of medicine, most late-term abortions are conducted by dilation and extraction. The fetus is pulled part way down the birth canal and the pregnancy is terminated when a significant part of its body is outside of the mother's womb. Opponents have used the rather unpleasant imagery of this procedure to rally people against late-term abortions. Senator Rick Santorum (R.-PA), an ardent opponent of abortion, called the procedure "barbaric" and "brutal." "They won the media war on this issue," said one Washington lobbyist who works on behalf of abortion rights.
          Since Roe v. Wade established a fundamental right to abortion in 1973 opponents have tried to find ways of limiting its reach. For example, at the urging of anti-abortion interest groups some states have passed parental notification laws. Many states have passed bans on partial birth abortions too. In June of 2000, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Stenberg v. Carhart that the Nebraska partial birth ban (and by implication all other state laws like it) was unconstitutional because it did not offer an exception to protect the life of the mother. The decision also cited the vagueness of the term. In an interview shortly after the court decision, a representative of an abortion rights organization said, "Our side is gaining ground because of the large number of federal courts that are ruling against these laws. Even Reagan-appointed judges have ruled in our favor."
          Despite the adverse court rulings abortion opponents have persevered. Although legislation banning late-term abortions passed the Congress twice-and was vetoed both times by President Clinton-the lobbying on this issue never really stopped. A bill similar to the legislation that was vetoed was being pushed in the 106th Congress when Stenberg v. Carhart decision came down. It didn't pass in that session but George Bush's election in 2000 ignited optimism on the part of partial birth opponents that they would finally prevail. Bush was eager to do something on behalf of his strong religious electoral base and has been unequivocally opposed to partial birth abortions.
          In 2003 Congress again passed a ban and President Bush signed it into law. Within hours of the signing ceremony a federal judge issued an injunction, staying the law until it could be adjudicated. Opponents cited the same problems with the federal law as has been present in the state laws. It's likely that the Supreme Court will ultimately have to rule on this new law before the issue is settled. For all the hue and cry over the issue, it concerns relatively few abortions. By one estimate only .04 percent of all abortions fall under the law's purview. Nevertheless, it has been an incendiary issue as each side regards it as a matter of a fundamental right. For opponents of abortion, it's the right to life. For proponents of choice, it's a matter of a woman's right to control her own body.