‘Partial Birth Abortion’ Is a Right-Wing Invention
by Megan Burbank
With abortion rights top of mind for Washington voters as we count down to the Nov. 8 general election, some Republican party candidates are using campaign literature to reinforce longstanding myths about abortion. Earlier in October, the State Republican Party distributed mailers claiming Democratic candidates support “partial birth abortion,” abortion “until the due date,” and “no safeguards.”
According to the Washington Senate Democratic Campaign, the mailers were sent out to the 18th, 24th, 26th, 28th, and 30th legislative districts and targeted candidates Mike Chapman, Steve Tharinger, and Adison Richards, all using identical language: “Abortion is a difficult, private, and personal decision. [The candidate] disagrees.”
What’s notable about the mailers isn’t the sentiment behind them: Many anti-abortion candidates, including Patty Murray opponent Tiffany Smiley, are currently walking an uneasy line between professed opposition to abortion and efforts to distance themselves from extreme efforts to ban or restrict abortion that may be alienating in Washington. Here, support for abortion sets the state apart from those that have opted to ban abortion since the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade in June.
What’s remarkable about these mailers is that they’re pushing an old myth about abortion. Though you might’ve heard about it in anti-abortion talking points that proliferated along with a national spike in anti-abortion legislation at the state level in 2011 — or in the months leading up to the 2016 election, when then-candidate Donald Trump railed against it — suggesting that anyone in 2022 is advocating for “partial birth abortion” can’t pass a basic fact-check. Because, like abortion reversal, partial birth abortion doesn’t exist.
The phrase isn’t rooted in medicine, but in the political machinations of the anti-abortion movement. According to reporting from NPR, the term was first used in 1995 by the National Right to Life Committee to describe dilation and extraction (D&X), a procedure used in both later abortions and miscarriages that allows a fetus to be removed intact from the uterus. The procedure is an alternative to the more common dilation and evacuation, in which suction is used to remove the fetus. Though framed as barbaric in anti-abortion policy, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists maintain that a D&X can be “safest and offers significant benefits for women suffering from certain conditions.”
That nuance is lost in its political application, which invites misinformation even for medical providers. In 2003, when Congress passed a ban on “partial birth abortion,” abortion provider Warren Hern wrote an essay at Slate expressing his lack of clarity as to whether it would even impact his practice. “Exactly which procedures will be banned, and which doctors prosecuted?” he wrote. “Will the anti-abortion lobby be happier with the alternative methods to which doctors will resort? If not, which methods and doctors will be targeted next? Will this ban have a chilling effect on related procedures? If so, will it prevent abortions — or births?”
Hern said he didn’t know how to answer these questions, “and neither does Congress” or the medical community. “No physician expert on late abortion has ever testified in person before a congressional committee,” he wrote. “No peer-reviewed articles or case reports have ever been published describing anything such as ‘partial-birth’ abortion, ‘Intact D&E’ (for ‘dilation and extraction’), or any of its synonyms.”
What is clear is that later abortions are already rare. According to the Guttmacher Institute, abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy make up just 1% of total procedures. The vast majority of abortion procedures occur early on in pregnancy. It’s also clear that leading medical organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists don’t recognize “partial-birth abortion.”
That’s not surprising for terminology that originated not within medicine but among anti-abortion activists. And if your endgame is banning abortion, it makes sense to use this inflammatory language. But in this context, the State GOP’s mailers make even less sense. Because Democrats didn’t invent partial-birth abortion. Republicans did.
Editors’ Note: This article has been updated post-publication to correct typographical errors.
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Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.
📸 Featured Image: Image courtesy of Salish Current.
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