Bench Memos

Is Greenhouse a Liar or an Ignoramus?

It’s a harsh question to ask, but I think Linda Greenhouse must be one or the other. Today she writes an article previewing the Supreme Court’s upcoming oral argument this week in the matter of Congress’s ban on partial-birth abortions. Of course, she never actually describes the grisly act that Congress prohibited. But it gets worse. Near the end of her article, Greenhouse quotes a brief arguing for the law as prohibiting “killing a child in the birth process.” Greenhouse then writes this:

While this description is true in the sense that uninterrupted gestation leads to birth — “He not busy being born is busy dying,” in the words of the Bob Dylan song — it is well off the mark as a description of what actually occurs.

The standard procedure used by Dr. Warren M. Hern, the author of a widely consulted textbook on abortion and one of the leading providers of abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy, is to “induce fetal demise” by injecting a drug one or two days before the abortion.

Never mind the stupidly frivolous quotation of Bob Dylan. This is flatly wrong as a description of what is being debated with respect to partial-birth abortion, and Greenhouse has every reason to know better. Here is what the statute passed by Congress actually prohibits: any procedure in which the abortionist

(A) deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of a breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother, for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus; and

(B) performs the overt act, other than completion of delivery, that kills the partially delivered living fetus . . . .

If the “standard procedure” described by Greenhouse were in fact what happens in the abortions the debate is about, we wouldn’t be calling it “partial-birth” abortion, now would we? It is the perversion of birthing into killing, when a living unborn child is present and could actually be delivered, that prompted the act of Congress. “Fetal demise” induced by drugs a day or two beforehand, followed by removal of the fetal remains (as much as that would still represent an abortion that should be banned) simply is not an abortion that falls within the law’s terms. Whatever Dr. Hern’s “standard procedure” is, it isn’t banned by this legislation if it is as described here.

Contrary to Greenhouse’s false depiction, “killing a child in the birth process” is an unquestionably accurate description of the act banned by the statute. One could ask, why can’t she get this right? But I suspect the real question is, why won’t she?

Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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