Politics & Policy

Defending Abortion by Dismemberment Isn’t Easy

Give Dahlia Lithwick credit: She abides by her convictions — namely, her conviction that killing a living unborn child by dismembering it in the womb should be legal. That is her argument today at Slate, where she opines that the bans on abortion-by-dismemberment recently signed into law in Kansas and Oklahoma are a “watershed” tactic in pro-lifers’ assault on reproductive rights.

If you suspected that defending abortion-by-dismemberment might be difficult, Lithwick proves you right. Her arguments are twofold — 1) the abortion-by-dismemberment ban is based on inflammatory rhetoric; and 2) it endangers women — and both are sleights of hand.

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Lithwick contends that “dismemberment” is a “completely nonmedical term” employed because it has no practical referent, and because it is emotionally charged. Nonsense. Here is the definition of “dismemberment abortion” from Kansas’s “Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act”:

‘Dismemberment abortion’ means, with the purpose of causing the death of an unborn child, knowingly dismembering a living unborn child and extracting such unborn child one piece at a time from the uterus through the use of clamps, grasping forceps, tongs, scissors or similar instruments that, through the convergence of two rigid levers, slice, crush or grasp a portion of the unborn child’s body in order to cut or rip it off.

Even if it is not the terminology used in the medical journals, the proscribed procedure is unmistakably clear.

But note, more importantly, that Lithwick objects to Kansas’s using the word “dismemberment,” but she does not suggest that the word misrepresents what actually happens. So what Lithwick really objects to is calling abortion-by-dismemberment what it is.

Kansas’s new law will apply to what are usually called “dilation and evacuation,” or D&E, abortions (far more obfuscatory, one might observe, than “dismemberment,” that label), and Lithwick correctly points out that Kansas’s new ban will significantly reduce the number of D&E abortions in the state. But she exaggerates the consequent horrors of this reduction. As she herself observes, D&E abortion is a second-trimester procedure that accounted for just 8 percent of the state’s abortions in 2013. And besides the fact that the legislature has taken aim at a statistically rare abortion method, it has popular nationwide support: Only one in four voters supports legal second-trimester abortions, according to Gallup. Kansas lawmakers are far more in step with the public than is Lithwick.

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Where Lithwick has a prima facie point is in her contention that banning most D&E abortions leaves women seeking second-trimester abortions with options — an induction abortion, for example — that are commonly considered more dangerous. It is possible to be sympathetic to Lithwick’s concern while also noting that she mistakes — or substitutes — a secondary question for the primary moral one.

#related#If what were at issue were determining the safest method of removing “parasitic fetal material,” D&E is, by medical consensus, safest. But that is not the question. The question is, does the procedure involve one human being, or two? Before one can decide whether D&E abortions should be allowed, one has to answer that question. If D&E abortions involve two human beings, then arguing for D&E abortions on the grounds that they are “safer” (for the mother, that is) than other options is like arguing for the right of a mother to shoot her first-grade son, because that is safer for the mother than drowning him in the backyard pool. We all recognize (one hopes!) that holding such a debate would be insane.

Lithwick’s implicit answer is clear, but she refuses to address the question head-on, because she would have to admit that she is in the decided minority when it comes to thinking that a baby with a heartbeat and brainwaves and all its organs and fingerprints and cases of hiccups is just a clump of tissue. Better to hide behind the banner of women’s health and accusations of legislative misogyny.

That its advocates, from Debbie Wasserman Schultz to Dahlia Lithwick, staunchly refuse to address the question at the heart of the debate should be a surefire indication that abortion proponents know their position is weak.

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