Life Watch: How the President Vetoes a Bill

Two of the most engaging students at Amherst—worldly, informed, sensible, savvy—rather surprised me when I made a comment in passing on the latest news of the day and they expressed a complete innocence: What was a “partial-birth abortion”?

The hearings and debates had drawn a certain attention over several months, and the question had been given a further life, dangling before the public, as Mr. Clinton feigned agonies of moral straining as he prepared to veto the bill.

When he did finally announce his veto, I remarked to my students, in private, that it was not apparently enough for Mr. Clinton that the baby was about 70 percent removed from the birth canal. Was he still suffering doubts about the presence of a real child or a human being? And that is when my students professed that this was all news to them. Yet, unless these students were C-Span junkies, where would they have heard much that ran beneath the surface about this issue? My students, connected as they were to the world, received their news mainly from the New York Times. When Mr. Clinton vetoed the partial-birth abortion bill, the account in the New York Times the next day could be taken as Exhibit A. It was front page and deeply revealing. But it revealed more about the New York Times and the politics of the reporters than it revealed about partial-birth abortions.

In the legends of journalism, the first lessons on writing that cub reporters receive deals with constructing the “lead”: get the main facts out right away, in the opening line or the first paragraph. The reader should learn instantly what the story is about. Mr. Robert Pear, writing for the New York Times, was not exactly Henry Jamesian in his willingness to unfold the story in a circuitous way, with elaborate meanderings. But he was leisurely in a style rather uncharacteristic of reporters as he affected to impart the news. To gauge how far this style departed from the usual conventions of reporting is to reveal the purpose behind the writing. And that purpose reveals itself if one simply notes the progress of the paragraphs. I mark them here as a kind of outline:

Paragraph 1: Mr. Pear notes that, after two hours of “passionate” debate the House passed a measure. Evidently, this was an issue affected with passion, more than other bills and therefore subject to those distortions of sober fact that passions will produce. The measure passed by the House was a bill to “outlaw a specific type of late-term abortion.” The reporter had space, within this paragraph, to note that the measure would be sent to President Clinton, who had professed his intention to veto it. And yet, the reporter could not find the space to tell his readers exactly what kind of abortions elicited all of the “passion.”

Paragraph 2: The vote was 286 to 129, with 72 Democrats joining 214 Republicans in supporting the bill.

Paragraph 3: The vote on a similar measure in the Senate was 54 to 44, quite short of the numbers that would be necessary to override a veto.

Paragraph 4: “Supporters of the bill said it would prohibit a particularly gruesome form of abortion.” That it was “gruesome” was merely the opinion, then, of the supporters of the bill. Whether the facts of the procedure justified that description one could not yet judge, because there was no account yet of what that procedure actually was.

Paragraph 5: Opponents of the bill said that it would “unconstitutionally restrict access to abortion, banning procedures that may be needed to preserve the health of some pregnant women.”

Paragraph 6: Here some real news is conveyed, as the writer reports that Mr. Clinton, “while opposing late-term abortions,” insisted that the current bill did not satisfy the constitutional requirements laid down by the Supreme Court. The reporter would not yet pronounce on the actual facts of partial-birth abortions, but he was willing to suspend his incredulity and treat as a fact Mr. Clinton’s claim that he was “opposed to late-term abortions.” Curiously absent now was the skepticism that otherwise threaded through the piece. That skepticism evaporated when it came to asking just where, as president, Mr. Clinton had ever manifested his opposition to late-term abortions. Had he ever proposed any bill, or executive order, that would have restricted a single abortion late in pregnancy?

Paragraph 7: “Much confusion and uncertainty surround the legislation,” Mr. Pear informs his readers. Apparently, there is a haze that still obscures the truth of the matter, which may be why he has not broken out yet to his readers the facts that are so confusing. But he seems prepared at last to tell his readers precisely what the surgery is about. And yet, not really. The account of the procedure is prefaced by the report that this is what “supporters of the bill said” that it involves: “a doctor partially extracts a fetus, feet first, then forces scissors into its skull, inserts a suction tube and removes the brain, causing the skull to collapse.” Or so the “supporters of the bill said.” In the reigning style of postmodernism, the facts that constitute partial-birth abortion are deprived of their standing as facts: What we have, rather, are perceptions, or perspectives on facts. But the facts themselves are unstable or uncertain, for their truth is open to contention, depending on the politics of the contestants.

Yet there is nothing in the least contested about the facts that describe partial-birth abortions. They do not spring merely from the narrative offered by the opponents of the procedure. Indeed, Mr. Pear might have noted as aptly that this is not the account supplied merely by the opponents; it is the account offered by the practitioners who perform these surgeries. But he could not have said that without removing his report from the cloud of relativism that he has been pleased to cast all about it. In the shaping hand of Mr. Pear, the question of whether this procedure is gruesome or therapeutic, barbarous or healing, depends entirely on where we stand on abortion, and where we stand, evidently, will determine what we see.

As for Mr. Clinton, his own performance required the highest arts of the illusionist or magician, for he had to stand there before an audience and pretend, with conviction, that no one saw what was plainly before us all. That trick was accomplished through the device of insisting that he was willing to sign a bill if there had been a provision for the health of the mother. Clinton knew, better than most people, that under Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the health of the pregnant woman encompasses mental health. Any doctor may testify that his patient will suffer distress if she is denied an abortion, and any doctor who orders up a partial-birth abortion will readily report that this procedure is the least traumatic for his patient, in removing the unwanted fetus late in term. To insist on the exception for “health” is to engage in the deception of appearing to bar these abortions, while in fact barring nothing.

But even this bit of play-acting can be carried through only by using the arts of rhetoric to divert the eye and the mind: What interest in health could plausibly motivate or justify a pregnant woman in having the head of her child punctured and the brains sucked out? Would it be bursitis? Chronic problems with the kidneys? The prospect of long-term depression? Or would we require nothing less than life-threatening dangers—a provision that was already incorporated in the bill. The comparisons cannot be made without inviting embarrassment. But more than that, they cannot be made without drawing attention to the fact that there is, after all, another being present, there in the womb, feeling pain and sustaining these assaults. What is remarkable about Mr. Clinton’s performance is that there isn’t the slightest hint, the slightest concession, to the fact that there is indeed anyone else present except the pregnant woman; anyone else whose health or safety could possibly matter.

Mr. Clinton is an accomplished performer, and he knows well that he is masking this point as part of the illusion. The reporters like Robert Pear seem to be in on this little secret, discreetly held back from the public. But the sobering point is just what this performance implies about the state of mind of the public: Mr. Clinton’s act can work, as it has, only if most people do not indeed notice that there is another being present, or if most people think it a matter of no consequence that a child’s head is punctured for the purpose of serving the interests of her mother. If these things have not made an impression on the sensibilities of the public, it is the purpose of Mr. Clinton’s art to preserve people in their serenity as they affect not to notice. And for others, the aim of his craft is to anesthetize them. Administering anesthetics to their clientele is something ordinarily done by doctors. In the case of Mr. Clinton, it is part of his regimen as a doctor of laws. And when at last his art is appreciated, it will be understood that this anesthetizing of the public was at the heart of his vocation.


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.