Late Edition: The Month That Changed the World

May, 1997 may become known in pro-life annals as the month that changed the world. First, a little pre-history. In late summer of last year Congress passed a legislative ban on partial-birth abortion, the barbaric procedure in which the child is partially delivered for the sole purpose of killing it. Scissors are thrust into the base of the infant’s skull, its brains are evacuated, the skull is collapsed, and the remains are then fully delivered. The only proper reaction to such savagery is one of horror, and a properly horrified Congress responded.

President Clinton, whose plasticity on every other issue is remarkable, searched his soul but found nothing there to warrant his support for the ban. He vetoed the bill, and the Senate failed to override. During the 1996 presidential campaign, Bob Dole and Jack Kemp chose to forgo this gold-plated political opportunity, giving Mr. Clinton a free ride on his veto. Buoyed by their gains in congressional elections, however, pro-life forces mounted a new assault. In late March, the House, led by Representative Charles Canady of Florida, re-passed the ban by a veto-proof majority, and the measure moved to the Senate.

Now the tale begins. On May 20, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania spurred 63 other Senators (five more than last year) to support the ban. This was still three votes shy of the two-thirds necessary to override the anticipated Clinton veto, but a funny thing happened on the way to the vote. First, Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, broke ranks with the president and the majority of his own party. A week before the vote, he floated a trial balloon: he would be willing to ban late-term abortions altogether, except when the mother’s life was at stake or when she risked “grievous injury” to her health. Pro-life leaders rejected the compromise (a) because they already had a clear majority for the Santorum bill, and (b) because they knew that Daschle’s “health” exception would create an unacceptably risky loophole.

Though Daschle’s alternative was soundly defeated on the floor, its introduction signified an important change for Senators who had hitherto refused to limit any form of abortion whatsoever. For the first time in living memory, pro-abortion forces were in disarray, as more than a dozen Senators demonstrated their willingness to cast the first pro-life vote in their careers. Daschle’s current language is too broad, but what’s politically relevant at this point is not legislative wording, but the fact that he felt it necessary to introduce the measure at all. He has opened the possibility of conversation with pro-life leaders that can produce nothing but good.

A second dramatic event occurred almost simultaneously: the American Medical Association bestirred itself to condemn partial-birth abortion as medically unnecessary. Their gesture was welcomed by the pro-life leadership, and after the addition of clarifying language the AMA endorsed the Santorum bill. The importance of the AMA statement should not be underestimated. It puts the most powerful medical group in the country on the side of the angels and removes from the president and his pro-abortion supporters the disingenuous argument that partial-birth abortion is necessary to protect maternal health.

Where events will go from here is hard to say. Because the Senate and House bills now differ, the House will have to revisit the issue. The outcome there is not in doubt. But sometime later this year, the ban on partial-birth abortion will once again be presented to the president for his signature. This time, however, a veto will be far more costly to both Mr. Clinton and his party. The American people clearly want to end this blatantly barbaric infanticide. It is equally clear that Democrats are uncomfortable talking about the issue (only two Senators ventured to defend partial-birth abortion on the floor). In the event of another Clinton veto, they’re going to feel political heat on the override that will make them wish they were summering in Zaire instead. Increasingly, Mr. Clinton and his radical feminist supporters are going to be leaders without a following.

In the meantime, Senator Daschle and his supporters have placed themselves on a course that will carry them, haltingly, but nevertheless inexorably, toward broader recognition of the rights of the unborn. One of these days, they may even discover that the someone who is killed in abortion is no less human at two weeks or ten weeks than she is at twenty or twenty-five.

  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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