Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Inches from Infanticide

Luis Lugo


April 15, 1996

Continuing the new era in abortion rights which he launched upon taking office, President Clinton last week vetoed legislation that would have outlawed partial-birth abortions. These account for a large number of the 17,000 abortions per year performed after the twentieth week of pregnancy. They involve a gruesome procedure in which a fetus is removed feet first until only the head remains inside the mother's womb. The doctor then punctures the skull and suctions out the brain before completely delivering the dead infant. Those three or four inches make it possible for the doctor to kill the baby without being legally liable for murder.

The undeniably cruel and violent nature of this assault on fetuses who are at a late stage of development garnered the bill strong (though not veto-proof) bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. Among its supporters were the Democratic leadership in the House as well as many generally pro-choice members whose consciences would not permit them to give, in the words of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, "unconditional support for abortion under any circumstances and by any means whatsoever, even those bordering on infanticide."

The partial birth abortion bill included an exception when the mother's life is in immediate danger, but President Clinton, citing his compassion for a "small but extremely vulnerable group of women," insisted on broadening the exception to include the health of the mother. The problem, as supporters of the bill point out, is that the courts have defined the phrase "the health of the mother" so broadly that it includes any factor—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, even the woman's age—which can be considered relevant to the patient's comfort and well-being. Clinton's proposed exception constitutes a loophole so large that it could be used to justify any elective abortion. Such language must therefore be unacceptable to anyone who truly wishes to make abortions rare.

If the true measure of a society is how well it looks after the interests of its most vulnerable members, then the president's decision to deny legal protection to partially born children surely must be seen as a tragic failure of public policy and as another deeply troubling symptom of the ex-tent to which the culture of death has eroded the moral foundations of American society. As Cardinal James Hickey of Washington asked: "If we deny the humanity of a child as it is being born, whose humanity will be denied next?" Sadly, the answer is already painfully clear: those who are sick and elderly among us—who are endowed, as some federal judges recently have discovered, with a fundamental right to physician-assisted suicide.

It is a diversion to argue that abortion is a matter of private, not public, morality. For what is more basic to public life than the question of who should have standing or membership in the political community? By legalizing the private destruction of the unborn, our society has put human life in the womb beyond the sphere of our public concerns and the protection of the public order, leaving it completely at the mercy of an autonomous individual choice. Seen in this light, the legacy of Roe v. Wade is an exclusivist one that runs counter to the historical trend in our democracy to ensure to more and more of our citizens equal protection under the law. Nowhere is the need for this protection more evident than in the case of innocent, pre-born human life. By vetoing this bill, the president has denied the government's solemn responsibility to protect the life of the most helpless in our society. That is a major failure of public, not merely private, morality.

—Luis E. Lugo, Associate Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”