Life Watch: How Liberals Do Hearings

In one of those notable Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson, a cluster of cows in a field spot a car load of tourists motoring by, at which point the cows strike a proper bovine attitude, standing placidly on four legs, chewing their cud. When the car is out of sight—when they no longer need to perform—they revert to their former positions. Lounging around now on two legs, with cocktails in hoof—and cigarettes—they resume their urbane banter.

In the middle of March, the Judiciary Committees of the Senate and the House met in joint session to hold hearings once again on the bill to restrict partial-birth abortions. And anyone taking in the experience might have been moved to wonder: Could it be that, when the cameras are turned off, the liberal Democrats, worldly, seasoned politicians that they are, engage in witty exchanges and deftly aimed railleries? But when the cameras come on, do they speak the “liberalspeak” they think they are expected to speak—the cliches and fatuities that resonate with their followers, even though they make no contact with the problem at hand? How else to explain why a senator like Dianne Feinstein, sprung from San Francisco, could suddenly turn . . . well, vacuous . . . when she turns to this issue of partial-birth abortions and delivers herself of weighty remarks. Feinstein would not inquire into the facts of partial-birth abortions, with children in the womb having their heads punctured with scissors and their brains suctioned out. She would not enter upon that question, she said, because she was simply convinced that the long arm of the federal government should not be interfering in the relations between a woman and her doctor.

But Senator Feinstein has been a busy member of a Congress that has sought to inject itself into the relations between patients and doctors at many points—most recently, in the decisions made by doctors about the amount of time a woman should spend in a hospital after giving birth. Sen. Orin Hatch had made this point earlier—but without, apparently, making any impression on Senator Feinstein or dislodging her from the cliches that evidently furnish her mind.

Still, the moment that marked the character of this event as a Far Side cartoon came during a tense session with three women, reporting on different experiences with partial-birth abortions. Two women had undergone the procedure, and a third had forgone it. Mrs. Goin’s child had organs outside his body, and required the most extended surgeries—with considerable pain for the child—in bringing the child to birth and dealing, at length, with his afflictions. By her own report, she and her husband were held back simply by a respect for the life of the child. The prospects may still seem dim, but she and her husband were evidently grateful for the life of their son. The other young women were plainly moved by the account, and expressed the wish that they too could have brought their children through to birth. Exactly why they could not was not a matter made clear in their testimony. Maureen Britell, 30, from Sandwich, Massachusetts, described herself and her husband as “practicing Catholics.” In her second pregnancy, in 1994, the baby was thought to be anacephalic (without a brain). In addition, the umbilical cord had slipped out of place, obstructing the placenta. The child was likely to die at birth, but the physician removed the child. Ms. Brittell reported that the procedure was done in order “to avoid serious health consequences to me”—though why that should have been advantageous to her health was never explained. Beyond that, it did not appear that Ms. Britell had undergone a partial-birth abortion. It was not at all clear that her experience was even relevant to the bill before the Committee. The other woman, Eileen Sullivan, made a point of reporting that she came from a “rather large Irish Catholic family,” with a mother working as “an adoption placement worker with Catholic Social Services.” According to Sullivan’s testimony:

Our baby’s brain was improperly formed and pressured by a backup of fluid; his head was enlarged; the palate was cleft; the heart was both malformed and failing; the liver was malfunctioning; the feet were clubbed; and there was a dangerously low amount of amniotic fluid.

As Sullivan summed up the prognosis, “the anomalies were incompatible with life.” But left unexplained was the question of why any of these maladies pointed to a partial-birth abortion. Why was the condition of the child treated, or even eased, by crushing his head? Apparently, the decision was not meant to minister to the interests of the child; it was done rather to “help improve our chances of future pregnancy.” But this procedure also runs the risk of producing an incompetent cervix as a result of the need to enlarge the cervix for this procedure, and the experience produced, in the case of one woman, five miscarriages. Why did Sullivan and her doctors suppose that it was an appropriate therapy here? To fill in that explanation was not something Sullivan regarded as part of her mission in these hearings. But she took it as a grave offense when anyone was indecorous enough to press the question.

For the issue was raised on the panel, by Dr. Curtis Cook, an assistant clinical professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. His specialty has been in maternal-fetal medicine, with ample clinical experience. He also wa4, a founding member of PHACT (Physicians Ad Hoc Coalition for Truth about partial-birth abortion). Dr. Cook sympathized with all of the women on the panel, but on the basis of his own experience, he pointed out that neither in the case of Britell nor Sullivan would a partial-birth abortion have been necessary. With Britell, the situation of “a cord preventing a baby from delivering is something that we run into quite commonly and frequently have to either reduce the cord or even cut the cord in order to successfully deliver the baby.” He went on to say that “we don’t kill the baby in doing that. We deliver the baby quickly after cutting the cord.” The procedure was apparently the “least invasive” for Ms. Britell. But that is to say, it was a procedure designed for her interest, not that of her child.

Before Dr. Cook could turn to her own case, Sullivan intervened, heatedly objecting to his commentary, since the doctor did not know her. After all, he had never examined her or her records. Dr. Cook responded that he would be “more than willing to review any medical records people wanted to make available.” But that very offer was treated by Sullivan as an egregious offense, a presumptuous willingness to inquire into records that Sullivan regarded as personal. “No, no, no,” she said, “I will not release my medical records.”

Sensing a moment to be exploited, even at the risk of coherence, Congressman John Conyers of Michigan intervened to reproach the doctor: “[I]t is a little bit unseemly that a medical doctor would be engaged in this kind of confrontation with witnesses . . . I know you don’t conduct your professional life like this, but it is a bit of a stretch for you to listen to some witnesses . . . and then explain to them that their doctors had different things that weren’t brought to their attention.”

Congressman Conyers has managed a successful career in Congress without being constrained by the tethers of propositional logic. But here he surely exceeded himself with something that had to be “unseemly” for a legislator engaged in a legislative hearing. Left in the shelter of her personal life, no one would have had any reason to raise questions about the ground of Sullivan’s judgment. But Conyers seemed to forget the cardinal point that Sullivan had presented herself as a witness, bearing testimony for a legislative hearing. She presented herself, that is, as a person whose experience would bear directly on the predicate of the legislation, and establish the falsity of that predicate. Under those conditions, it was not only legitimate, but even obligatory, for her to submit to review the alleged facts on which she offered that account of her experience. Without that evidence, why would she be credited in any way as a bearer of testimony relevant to the bill before the committee?

Imagine that the Congress was at work on a bill to forbid the fraud of self-advertised alchemists claiming to turn tin into gold. Imagine further that a woman flies in from Los Angeles to report that the law is misconceived, that it is indeed possible to turn tin into gold, for after all, she reports, she has done it. The Congressmen ask to see her records, and let a detached observer with competence review them, but she retorts, in high dudgeon, that this is a personal experience, and that she regards it as an invasion of her privacy to have those records reviewed. Her testimony is to be credited on the strength of the fact that she offered it. And it would be churlish beyond description for anyone to demand of her now that she also establish the truth of her claims.

Dr. Cook, without being censorious, was being perfectly correct. Sullivan was fed by the conceits of her age in which any personal experience, earnestly made public, has a claim to be honored, with no questions asked and no judgments cast. Her unexamined decision, driven by her own interests, was to be converted into legislative policy for the rest of the country. Or to put it another way, her story had to be honored by the gesture of foreclosing serious discussion in a legislative forum. As for Congressman Conyers, he joined his teammates in converting that forum into the animated cartoon they typically manage to produce when the cameras are turned on—but without the persisting clear-headedness of Daffy Duck or the integrity of Yosemite Sam.


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.

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