Partial-Birth Distortion

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Listening to critics of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003, one might conclude that the law, which was ruled unconstitutional by several courts whose rulings are now under appeal before the United States Supreme Court, 1) is erroneously named, 2) lacks an exception to protect the life of the mother and 3) is based on false assertions.

And listening to some Jewish groups, one might conclude as well that the law 4) is at acute odds with Jewish values.

One would be wrong on all four counts.

Despite concerted efforts by some to misrepresent the law, its language is stark and clear. It prohibits any overt act, like the puncturing of the brain, “that the person knows will kill” a fetus whose “entire… head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother.”

Thus, the removal of a fetus that has died or been killed inside its mother is clearly not prohibited by the embattled law. The procedure outlawed is the killing of a baby partially outside its mother’s body. One is hard pressed to imagine a more accurate name for the law than the one it colloquially carries. Indeed, some prefer the starker term “infanticide.”

Not, though, New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse. She rejects one brief’s description of the procedure as “killing a child in the birth process,” contending that every stage of gestation is perforce a part of the birth process. But Ms. Greenhouse, a truly gifted explicator of legal complexities, surely knows that the very point of laws is to draw lines, and that, to deal rationally with abortion, a line must be drawn between the concepts “unborn” and “born.” It is not unreasonable to imagine that line lying in the vicinity of what is described in the law’s language quoted above.

As to exceptions to the law’s prohibition, contrary to wide public perception, the law contains an explicit exception for cases where the procedure is deemed necessary to preserve the mother’s life. Whether the law needs a further exception for when a mother’s “health” is at stake – the law’s drafters found that there is no such situation – is one of the issues the Supreme Court will be weighing.

A piece of erroneous information was indeed found by critics in the law’s preamble: the assertion that “no medical schools” teach the procedure being prohibited. In fact, several do. The error, however, hardly affects the logic of the law.

Most troubling from my vantage point, though, is the assertion that the Jewish religious tradition is somehow offended by the prohibition, an assertion that has been made by a number of rabbis and Jewish organizational spokespeople. The president of Hadassah, to take one example, who baldly stated that the law “undermines Jewish values.”

She and others who have made similar claims are misinformed, and in turn misinform.

To be sure, the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a Jewish woman whose pregnancy endangers her takes precedence over that of her unborn child when there is no way to preserve both lives. And, while the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother’s health. But those narrow exceptions do not translate into some unlimited mother’s right to “make her own reproductive choices” — the position Hadassah enthusiastically trumpets — and most certainly not to any right to kill a live baby whose head, or most of whose body, has already emerged. What the Partial-Birth Abortion Act prohibits is, in the eyes of Jewish law, little if anything short of murder.

Nothing, of course, prevents a Jew, or Jewish organization or rabbi from ignoring the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition.

But intellectual integrity, if nothing else, should prevent anyone from misrepresenting what Jewish tradition has to say about killing a child who has effectively emerged into our world.

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7 Responses

  1. katrina says:

    you pretty much nailed it with this statement, “a line must be drawn between the concepts of “born” and ‘unborn'”.There are two extremes at work. There are people who think abortion at the very moment of conception is “baby-killing”, like any other. And there are people who think killing a partially born baby is “abortion” like any other. Besides drawing a line between born and unborn another thing to keep in mind is born life takes precedence over unborn life.Why do we allow women to have abortions to save their lives? Because born life takes precedence over unborn life. Why do we have a mishna that states if a pregnant woman is sentenced to death she doesn’t have to wait until she has given birth before being executed ? Because born life takes precedence over unborn life, even to the extent that the woman’s anguish takes precedence over the life of the unborn. Making the condemned women wait a long time for her immenent death is torture. As that mishna shows, we do not torture women (born people) in the name of being “pro-life”. Even if those people are criminals worthy of death–born life takes precedence over unborn life. Once we put the lives of the unborn ahead of the born chaos ensues. It is not acceptable for even one women to die from illegal abortion. Why? Because born life takes precedence over unborn life. If we believe that it’s okay for a few women to die from illegal abortions because that’s “nothing” compared to millions of dead unborn babies then we have to ask, “What is the exact number of dead women that the “pro-life” movement deems acceptable?”. A partially born baby is halachically a born person–that’s it, plain and simple, this procedure is unacceptable. I think the feminists and Hadassa are afraid this issue will be used as precedent by the “pro-life” movement to further the cause of the unborn at the expense of the born. I can’t imagine why they would think that! This issue could be used as a springboard for paying attention to the born. For years we’ve been saying, “a wise man sees what will be born”. When in fact a wise man sees what IS BORN. And our behavior to what is born (the present), affects what will be born (the future).

  2. Bob Miller says:

    There may be even some who do it or support it fully conscious that it is murder, but we have no way to know how common they are.

  3. Ori Pomerantz says:

    So, you see their lack of integrity not in abetting murder, but in being able to rationalize away such a clear case. I accept that – sorry I misunderstood you earlier.

  4. alfie says:

    are you saying that anyone who disagrees with you has no intellectual integrity. that’s just not fair and it is insulting. perhaps you could develop a bit more tolerance towards the opinions of others. or if you believe they are wrong – spell out in detail your proof. lacking that, your statement about intellectual integrity sounds like a cheap shot.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Ori asked “Are you sure they are evil rather than mistaken?”

    My own opinion is that most people involved have had reservations at some point, which they suppressed or explained away. If they had greater integrity, they would not have been able to rationalize something this blatant.

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Bob Miller, is it truly inconceivable that pro-abortionists think that a fetus even at that point is not a person? Are you sure they are evil rather than mistaken?

  7. Bob Miller says:

    People concerned about integrity would not commit or abet murder in the first place.