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The Federal Ban on Partial-Birth Abortion Became Law 13 Years Ago

by Countable | 11.5.16

On November 5, 2003, President George W. Bush signed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act into law, prohibiting a type of late-term abortion that removes an intact fetus from the uterus. Partial-birth abortions involve delivering a living fetus until its head or torso is outside of the mother when it is then killed.

The law ultimately survived a challenge that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but debate over partial-birth abortions continues to this day. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump used then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) vote against the bill as a talking point in the final presidential debate and their differences will ensure that this issue continues to be a major sticking point in the abortion debate.

Why did it come up?

Partial-birth abortions (technical term: dilation and extraction or D&X) grew in the public consciousness after Dr. Martin Haskell wrote a paper and gave a presentation on them at a 1992 meeting of abortion providers. Haskell didn’t invent the procedure, but his work soon drew the ire of the pro-life movement.

The following year, the National RIght to Life Committee managed to obtain a copy of the paper and began a campaign to publicize the procedure in hopes of gaining enough public support to ban it altogether.

Pro-life advocates in Congress succeeded in passing partial-birth abortion bans in 1995 and 1997, but both times they were vetoed by President Bill Clinton. A state-level ban enacted in Nebraska became the subject of a 2000 Supreme Court case known as Stenburg v. Carhart, which struck down the law on a 5-4 decision because it didn’t provide an exception for the mother’s health. As a result, similar laws in 29 out of 31 states that had implemented bans were invalidated.

What did it do?

The first successful federal bill was introduced by then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) in February 2003 and established penalties for physicians that perform a partial-birth abortion, which could include a fine, up to two years imprisonment, or a combination of both. The bill didn’t specify a timeframe for when during a pregnancy a partial-birth abortion occurs, instead relying on a description of the procedure to set the legal boundaries. It also didn’t contain a medical exception to protect the mother’s health, or a proposed amendment that expressed support for Roe v. Wade.

The Senate and House each passed initial versions of the bill but because of various amendments in each chamber it had to go through conference committee to iron out the differences.

The committee’s report passed the House on a 281-142 vote on October 2, 2003, with the support of all but four Republicans and opposition from about two-thirds of Democrats and then-Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The Senate followed suit on October 21, passing the bill by a 64-34 margin with the support of then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), despite opposition from then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and the soon-to-be top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer (NY). President George W. Bush then signed the bill into law on November 5, 2003.

What has its impact been?

Immediately after it became law, several legal challenges were filed to overturn the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and three district courts declared it unconstitutional because it lacked an exception for the mother’s health, citing the Stenberg v. Carhart ruling. Those rulings were affirmed by appeals courts, and reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.

On April 18, 2007 the Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in Gonzales v. Carhart that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act didn’t violate the Constitution. The main difference between between the Stenberg and Gonzales rulings was ultimately the composition of the Court — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had retired the previous year and found that the Nebraska ban was unconstitutional. President Bush replaced her with Justice Samuel Alito, who upheld the ban as constitutional.

Partial-birth abortions gained a prominent, if brief, role as an issue in the 2016 presidential election during the final debate. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was questioned by the moderator about her vote against the ban on partial-birth abortions, and replied that she felt the "life and health of the mother are taken into account" and that “when I voted as a Senator, I did not think that was the case.”

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump responded that "if you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother, just prior to the birth… Hillary can say that that’s okay, but that’s not okay with me."

— Eric Revell

Countable

Written by Countable

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(19)
  • Cory
    11/05/2016
    ···

    I think pro choicers see pro lifers as a bunch of old white men who just want to control women and their "bodies." When in fact most pro lifers are sympathetic to the human life growing, the life that Needs the mother's body to survive. We're all about a woman's choice to procreate. If you don't want to, don't have sex, or use birth control. After you make that choice, what happens next is your responsibility. As for the death penalty and war, those issues have nothing to do with abortion. Pretty sure a fetus has never committed a violent crime or tried to invade another country. I find it ironic that most of the pro choicers want a country that gives a helping hand to minorities, refugees, handicapped, low income, and just about every other group they can label as needing assistance, but an unborn baby gets thrown to the wolves.

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  • Jeffrey
    11/05/2016
    ···

    Are you pro-lifers going to be against the death penalty? What about war? Are you going to supply the mother with a good job to support her child? Or just a "scarlet letter" of public shame for being such a "ho"? Just shut up, and keep your beliefs to yourself.

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  • Abby
    11/05/2016
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    As a mother who has lost a baby and birthed a baby it breaks my heart to realize this is an area of disagreement. People are okay with a baby partially coming out and then being killed? Medicine is so advanced that if the birth threatened the life of the mother they could do a c-section, a partial-birth abortion wouldn't help save the mother's life if giving birth was putting her at risk anyways because she'll still have to give birth. Babies in the womb feel pain, they have a heartbeat, they are learning the sound of their parents voices... how human do they need to be to have a right to live?

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  • John
    11/05/2016
    ···

    It's not her body that's at issue, it's the baby's. And if you don't understand the difference between a fetal chicken and a fully developed human baby near term, then heaven help us all.

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  • Corey
    11/07/2016
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    I think there's a lot of misconception about this procedure. It's usually used if the fetus is not viable or the mother's health is at serious risk. I think it's wrong to deny a woman and her family a method to safely deal with these kinds of tragic medical issues. In all this political rhetoric about "ripping babies out" we lose the real consequences of limiting doctor's ability to manage miscarriage and pregnancy complications.

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  • David
    11/05/2016
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    I can't imagine the excruciating pain inflicted on a baby during a partial birth abortion, all ending in their death.

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  • Josh
    11/05/2016
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    To the pro-choice argument about it being the woman's right to her body, what about the fetus' right to its body? Especially partially born! To me it's a selfish argument to say "I have a right to my body" when partial born abortions have nothing to do with your body and everything to do with that baby's body.

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  • ProLifeLibertarian
    11/07/2016
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    It is funny that Clinton fights for women just not women in the womb. It's funny the liberals would work hard to charge somebody who murders a pregnant women with double murder, obviously recognizing the baby as a person, but not counting abortion as murder. Hypocritical at its finest.

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  • LibertarianMarxist
    11/05/2016
    ···

    I'm completely pro-choice, and it's the woman's right to her body. That said, the scientific community considers a chicken fetus a living chick after its first breath post-hatch. Why are humans any different? While the fetus is in the woman's womb, it's her body and her choice. After it breathes by itself, it's its own body with its own rights.

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  • Anna
    11/05/2016
    ···

    John and David, it really is none of your business what women do with their bodies! We don't tell you that we no longer want to finance your erectile dysfunction drugs, do we? We could give a care less if you function as a man or a eunick! The mass inside a woman is no baby! It is a mass that survives off of us until after birth and takes its first breath. May I suggest that you take care of your own body and get your nose out from between my legs. YOU WERE NOT INVITED!!!!

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  • Devin
    11/07/2016
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    Usually late-term abortions occur when the health of the mother is at stake or if the baby won't survive birth. Because once a woman reaches the third trimester she is probably planning on having the baby. We all need to think about the health of the mother. She is a human being who has reasons for wanting an abortion and we need to respect that not fight it, because we never know if it is for the safety of the mother.

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  • Lauren
    08/15/2018
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    many people are asking if "pro-lifer's are against the death penalty" i personally am not. the person on death row did something worthy of death to get there. the unborn child has done nothing wrong & is completely pure.

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  • Jonah
    11/17/2016
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    Whether or not your personal, religious, etc views makes you not ok with abortion, it is not your decision to make for others. Other factors come into play when individuals get abortions. If an abortion ban occurs that will not stop some women form getting abortions. However it will be far less safe for the individual. We should allow the choice to be up to the woman, and conduct safe abortions so no other problems arise for that woman.

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  • Jason
    11/19/2016
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    To think that a women would even decide to take her own baby's life is heart wrenching! When you were 18 years did you think exactly like your parents? No, I highly doubt it. Which in turn means you had the right to be alive, because you weren't part of your parents body you had your own body. To think someone would try to compare a baby to a chicken is ignorant. I am a father and when I heard my baby girl's heart beat for the first time it was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. Yes, a heart beat not my wife's heart beat not my heart beat my daughters heart beat. Therefore, just like people shouldn't have the right to take our life or any other person's life by murder or against ones will . We shouldn't have the right to decide to execute a baby. If a person doesn't want the baby; they should find the opportunity for adoption. There are many families out there looking to adopt. However, our system makes it hard on these families to adopt. We should develop a better system and easier system for those who want to adopt.

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  • Ellen
    11/21/2016
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    Partial birth abortions only happen if the mothers health is at risk. It's not a "oh wait I changed my mind about this pregnancy" at the very end. C-sections and other forms of delivery are NOT always an option, because remember, this happens when mom's life is in danger. You don't know what medical conditions she's dealing with, before or during pregnancy. It's reckless to assume that mom's life and baby's life would be spared simply by doing a C-section. It's major abdominal surgery that puts mom and baby's life at risk.

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  • Joanne
    11/22/2016
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    The only people who should be making health care decisions are doctors and patients. If a late term abortion is the best choice for a patient, and both physician and patient agree, that's all there is to it. We need to remove loaded language from these bills and discussions. You can make any procedure sound awful if you use loaded, non-scientific words. "They drugged him, sawed open his sternum to expose his chest cavity, then they ripped out his still-beating heart! Then they put a dead stranger's heart in the gaping hole before stapling everything together.

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  • Sally
    11/18/2016
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    That sure is a lot of white guys making laws about women's bodies.

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  • Darby
    05/14/2018
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    Why aren’t we actually bringing abortionists who violate this law to justice then?

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  • Chester
    08/24/2018
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    Abortion is unconstitutional because the unborn are protected by the Preamble of the Constitution! Look up the word Posterity!

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