Trump's use of 'partial-term abortion' is misleading and medically inaccurate

Woman at pro-abortion rally

Photo via Dave Fayram/Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

If we're going to talk about abortion, let's get the facts straight.

At last night’s presidential debates, Donald Trump defended his anti-abortion views (ones he has drastically changed his mind about many times). He suggested he would appoint Supreme Court judges that would roll back Roe v. Wade, that late-term abortion works by “ripping the baby out of the womb,” and that he opposes “partial-birth abortion.” However, “partial-birth” abortion is not a medical term, it’s a political one. 

According to Trump, late-term abortions are procedures in which “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 of the baby.”

However, medical professionals and women's rights advocates are insisting that’s not how it works.

Planned Parenthood Action Fund's executive director Deirdre Schifeling told the Daily Dot in a statement that "Donald Trump made blatantly untrue statements about access to abortion. His response was not based in any kind of reality and just shows how little he knows about abortion or access to reproductive health care in this country." 

According to Planned Parenthood and many fact-checkers, no fetuses are being ripped from wombs, and nobody is delivering a living “child.” Planned Parenthood writes on its site that for second-trimester abortions, “you may also need a shot through your abdomen to make sure that the fetus's heart stops before the procedure begins.”

What many people consider a “partial-birth abortion” is actually called an Intact Dilation & Extraction (sometimes Intact D&E or D&X), which is one of a few procedures used for both late-term abortions and late-term miscarriages. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about 1.2 percent of abortions are performed after 21 weeks. "Some doctors say D&X abortion is a preferable method for ending [pregnancies in which the fetus shows signs of abnormalities] without damaging the woman's cervix,” wrote NPR.

Due to the D&X’s resemblance to birth—in that yes, a fetus is exiting the body through the vaginal canal—anti-abortion activists began using the term “partial-birth abortion.” The phrase was first introduced around the same time the procedure was developed in the mid-90s, and is widely credited to the National Right to Life Committee. 1995 was the first year the “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act” was introduced in Congress. It was vetoed by President Bill Clinton but was passed in 2003.

Aside from the fact that legislation does not use the medically correct term for the procedure, it also misrepresents what actually happens. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act defines the procedure as such:

...an abortion in which a physician deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living, unborn child’s body until either the entire baby’s head is outside the body of the mother, or any part of the baby’s trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother and only the head remains inside the womb, for the purpose of performing an overt act (usually the puncturing of the back of the child’s skull and removing the baby’s brains) that the person knows will kill the partially delivered infant, performs this act, and then completes delivery of the dead infant…

Abortion is not a pretty thing. Neither are most medical procedures (a description of triple-bypass surgery would be nearly as gruesome). But the problem with the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and its namesake phrase is that it’s not just misleading, but vague, because it doesn’t use medical terminology. Instead of banning the D&X procedure itself (which is a much more nuanced procedure than what is described in the ban and includes the fetus being extracted intact), it bans anything politicians can argue falls under a “partial-birth abortion,” and thus makes it easier for anti-abortion politicians and activists to keep chipping away about abortion access.

This criticism has come for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act before. The 2006 Supreme Court case Gonzales v. Carhart argued that the wording in the bill was too vague, especially the phrase “living fetus.” In an amicus brief, then-Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch said, “This definition fails to provide any clarity as to what procedures are prohibited, and thus fails constitutional due process requirements.” Plaintiffs argued that the wording could easily apply to the more common Dilation & Evacuation (D&E) procedure. The bill was upheld by a 5-4 majority.

Whether or not you agree with a pregnant person’s right to have an abortion, it behooves everyone to use accurate, specific terminology when describing legislation. An abortion is a choice. Everybody should be clear on exactly what that choice is. 

Update Oct. 20, 12:08pm CT: Includes statement from Planned Parenthood Actio Fund.

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