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Debate: Partial-birth abortion

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Should partial-birth abortion be banned?

Background and context

This issue is about late-term abortions, in the second and third trimesters. At least 90% of abortions are performed in the first trimester, when other procedures are more appropriate. In partial-birth abortion (PBA), also known as Dilation and Extraction (D&X), the woman's cervix is dilated, and the foetus is partially removed from the womb, feet first.
The surgeon inserts a sharp object into the back of the foetus' head, removes it, and inserts a vacuum tube through which the brain is extracted. The head of the foetus contracts at this point and allows the foetus to be more easily removed from the womb. The main justifications for the use of D&X are: that the foetus is dead; that continued pregnancy will endanger the life of the mother; that continued pregnancy will adversely affect the mother’s health; that the foetus is so malformed that it will never gain consciousness after birth. More controversial is the use of the technique for healthy foetuses when the mother’s life is not at risk. This is banned by several state Medical Associations in the US, but many physicians have reported performing them, mainly for women who are suicidally depressed, but also for rape victims and for very young pregnant women. It is estimated that about 3,000 partial-birth abortions are performed in the United States every year. Bill Clinton vetoed bills banning partial-birth abortions in 1995, 1997 and 1999. George W. Bush has indicated that he is in favour of introducing a federal law banning partial-birth abortion except where the foetus is dead or severely malformed, or where the mother’s life (not the mother’s health or welfare) is at risk. Although this is not necessarily a US-specific debate, the issue is on the political, and indeed legislative, agenda in the USA to an extent which is not matched elsewhere, and some of the arguments here reflect this.NB In addition to the arguments below, this debate may well employ arguments from debates about abortion in general -

Contents


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Barbarous procedure: Is partial-birth abortion a barbarous procedure?

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Yes

  • The standard process of partial birth abortion is an unnecessarily violent process that breaks from the normative treatment of life forms. The procedure involves sticking a pair of scissors into the baby’s brain, enlarging the hole, sucking the brain out with a catheter and then crushing the skull. This is a violent procedure that involves a substantial degree of destructiveness, which many believe to be excessive and and grotesque. Even if the "killing" of the fetus were to be justified, many argue that the means of doing so could be more "civilized" and less violently destructive. A process that simply involved the piercing of the brain, but not the removal of the brain and crushing of the skull, for example, could be argued as less destructive and thus more "civilized".
  • An analogy could be appropriately drawn to the methods for conducting capital punishment. While some societies believe that capital punishment is justified, they usually set very specific guidelines for the conduct of the process. Hanging, stoning, and decapitation are processes that are generally deemed excessive, brutal, and uncivilized in liberal democratic societies. They are deemed as such mainly because they inflict a high degree of violence and sometimes pain upon the recipient. Common practices of partial birth abortion, described above, can be viewed as analogous in their violence to such methods of capital punishment as stoning or decapitation. It may be appropriate, therefore, to view the common process of partial birth abortion as similarly violent and barbarous. It is not enough to view
    • If it is countered that this analogy is not appropriate because fetuses should not be considered on an equal basis as those subject to capital punishment, a number of considerations should be made against this position. First, those that are subject to capital punishment are often murderers or extreme offenders. Should these citizens be regarded more highly, and more worthy of decency than an unborn fetus? Maybe not.
    • First, an unborn fetus has often taken on most aspects of human form, nearing "viability", meaning that it shares most of the human characteristics held by a fully grown human criminal.
    • Second, both an unborn fetus and a convicted criminal share the fact that they lack the full rights assigned to regular citizens.
    • On this basis, it may be appropriate to conclude that a unborn fetus and a convicted death-row criminal should be treated with a similar level of decency. Given that most liberal democracies prohibit violent forms of capital punishment, it may then follow that liberal democracies (and others) should prohibit the common methods of partial birth abortions on the grounds that they are excessively violent.
  • The fetus can feel pain, thus making the processes used in partial birth abortion barbarous. There is little doubt among doctors and others that the fetus experiences pain during a partial birth abortion procedure.
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No

  • The infant's rights begin only after the fetus is removed from the mother's body and its umbilical cord cut. Nobody would choose to have a partial-birth abortion over a much simpler abortion in the first trimester. Partial-birth abortions are either medically or psychologically necessary. If a young mother either does not find out she is pregnant or is too scared to tell anyone, if a woman is raped and decides at any stage that she does not want the baby, if a woman is threatening suicide if she is forced to carry a baby to term, we should not make her suffer further by forbidding her from ending the pregnancy. For all sorts of reasons, many women do not seek any kind of medical help until late in their pregnancy - this should not mean they forfeit their right to an abortion. In any case, if abortion is allowed at all, and given that the foetus is not recognised in law as a human being, it should be nobody’s business but the mother’s whether and at what stage she chooses to have an abortion.
  • The collapsing of the skull of the "partially born" fetus is necessary to prevent pain and the risk of damage to the woman. The head is the largest single part of a fetus, and is the most difficult to pass. Similar to giving birth, the passing of the head often causes excruciating pain, struggle, and sometimes damage to the Cervix and Vagina. Collapsing the skull eliminates these risks. As such, it can be argued that the collapsing of the skull of the unborn head of the fetus is a "civilized" measure in the way that it protects the mother from harm or the risk of harm. In other words, the infliction of pain and destruction on the fetus may be canceled out by the reduction in the pain and risk of permanent damage to the woman.
  • It is also arguable that it is the women's right to protect herself from the pain alone, irrespective of whether there are any serious long-term health risks that might result from passing the intact head of an unborn child.
  • A ban on partial birth abortions would stop other even more "gruesome" forms of late term abortions. The primary alternative to partial birth abortion is the dismemberment and removal, in parts (legs, arms, head, torso), of an unborn fetus while inside the mother's womb. This may be more "gruesome" than a partial birth abortion. A ban on partial birth abortion would not eliminate this primary alternative to partial birth abortion. Neither would it necessarily reduce the number of overall late term abortions being performed. This only goes toward pointing out that a partial birth abortion ban, in isolation, would not necessarily reduce the "gruesomeness" of the late term abortion procedures being performed.
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Women's rights? - Does the woman have the right to abort in the third trimester of a pregnancy (partial birth abortion)?

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Yes

  • One cannot kill a child who is more than half born to advance the mother's health instead of simply completing a live delivery. - The US Conference of Catholic Bishops.[1]
  • Banning partial birth abortion does not eliminate a woman's right to choose methods to prevent their impregnation or abort at an earlier stage. There are dozens of forms of birth control, pregnancy detection, and early-term abortion options that women have the "right" to choose from that can prevent the need or desire to have a late term abortion such as partial birth abortion.
  • The widespread availability of birth control options provide women with a sufficient "choice" to determine the future of their bodies. The options include, abstinence, condom and profalactics, birth-control pills, morning-after or plan B pills. If a woman does not want to get pregnant, she is free to choose these options of birth control, which - if used responsibly - have a high probability of preventing impregnation (Abstinence is 100% effective). Therefore, unintentional impregnation has a high correlation with the irresponsible or even negligent use or avoidance of birth control methods. As such, women are provided the right to choose to act responsibly in protecting their bodies from impregnation in the first place. Therefore, a ban on partial birth abortion may not deprive women of the right choose to take the initial, responsible steps in protecting against uninented impregnation. This may be a sufficient provision to women of the "right to choose" to adopt measures that will help them control the future of their bodies. Any additional provisions, such as partial birth abortion, may be redundant and excessive.
  • Pregnancy detection methods and first term abortion options may also be sufficient provisions to women of the means to "choose" to determine the future of their bodies. If the above prevention methods fail, there are many other means made widely available to women, which can enable them to determine that they are pregnant in the first trimester. As such, these measures may provide women with sufficient means to make a responsible "choice" to abort in the first trimester, instead of opting for a late-term abortion such as a partial birth abortion. It is arguable that a government should not be responsible for providing additional measures to a woman, and that any woman that misses these provisions has acted irresponsibly or negligently, and subsequently may not deserve further, later options, such as partial birth abortion.


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No

  • A blanket ban on partial birth abortions may make it impossible to save a woman's life in certain medical circumstances. Note: some bans on partial birth abortions, allow for them when it would save the life of the mother.
  • A woman has the "right" to a partial birth abortion when it proven as necessary in preserving the her health.
  • Certain medical conditions of the baby or mother that threaten the mother's health or life may develop later in a pregnancy making late-term abortion justified as a way to protect the mother's health.[2] These can include
    • Heart failure [3]
    • Severe or uncontrollable diabetes [4]
    • Serious renal disease [5]
    • Uncontrollable hypertension (high blood pressure) [6]
    • Severe depression [7]
    • Severe deformities and genetic disorders [8]
  • Other common logistical and/or personal reasons might exist that make a first trimester abortion infeasible, and which may provide a sufficient circumstance for a woman to seek a late, partial birth abortion.[9] These may include:
    • Lack of recognition of pregnancy symptoms in the first trimester, particularly by adolescents[10]
    • "Inability to afford a first trimester abortion"[11]
    • "Inability to locate medical assistance during first trimester (due to lack of local medical professionals)"[12]
    • "Lack of financial resources, emotional support, and/or partner"[13]
  • "Slippery-slope" argument that "once 'fetal rights' are granted to one stage of the pregnancy, nothing will prevent their extension to all stages", which is argued as going too far. The basic concern is that if certain "rights" are extended to an unborn fetus at any stage, that it would be difficult to then draw a clear line or threshold across which the "right" to an unborn fetus could not be extended. This basic slippery slope argument, in other words, indicates that abortion would have to either be always illegal or always legal, because all other intermediate laws would risk being arbitrary, and be incapable of permanency. Pro-choice advocates believe that the women's "right" to their own body is most important to preserve, and thus that it is best to fall on the side of extending full choice to the mother, and preserving the "right" to partial birth abortion.
  • When abortion is illegal , many women die or suffer serious medical problems from either self-induced or illegal 'back-alley' abortions....Women streamed into emergency rooms with punctured wombs, massive bleeding, and rampant infections." - Ayn Rand Institute, 2003.
  • An isolated ban on partial birth abortion would not impose "an undue burden on a woman's right to abortion because adequate alternatives are available."[14], according to US Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She followed this statement with the assertion that that a ban on partial birth abortions "saves not a single fetus from destruction,"[15] emphasizing that a women would still have the right to choose a late term abortion. In this line of logic, the main reason for banning a partial birth abortion is not to save "life", but to prevent what is considered to be a barbarous and inhumane procedure. [16] Justice Gin


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Woman's interests and exceptional cases - Are there any significant female interests or exceptions cases that might justify a partial birth abortion?

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Yes

  • Partial-birth abortions are performed when fetal tissues are harder to dismember. Warren Hern, excerpted from his medical textbook Abortion Practice, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1984. - "The procedure changes significantly at 21 weeks because fetal tissues become much more cohesive and difficult to dismember." [17]


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No

  • There are certain exceptional cases which have been cited as circumstantially appropriate for a partial birth abortion.
    • Mother and/or family are impoverished and would not be able to support the new family entrant. One of the most common reasons why a poor woman seeks an abortion is that "she can not take care of herself and the children she has. Most of the pregnant women helped by the Women's Medical Fund have children—many with two or three, some with as many as 10. Another birth will draw the family deeper into poverty."
    • This argument may equally apply to partial birth abortion. Even if it becomes increasingly "wrong" to kill a more and more developed fetus, a partial birth abortion may nevertheless be justified on the basis that the benefits (or foregone pain) to the larger family unit outweighs the costs (or pain and lost life opportunity) to the single fetus.
    • A poor woman may also be more susceptible to late abortions for a variety of reasons. Poverty may decrease the availability of certain resources that make it possible for a woman to "choose" to prevent impregnation, discover that she is pregnant, and or seek a first term abortion. This might make it unreasonable to deny poor women the ability to seek third-term partial birth abortions. The following is a list of the conditions that may make a poor woman unable to "choose" anything but a late, partial birth abortion. She may lack:
      • Access to condoms and other birth control resources:
      • Access to pregnancy testing kits.
      • Access to information which would make it clear that she is eligible to seek an abortion, and where and how to do so.
  • Homeless women:
  • Women may seek to abort having the child of a batterer. A common reason for seeking abortions is that a woman is battered by her husband or boyfriend, and does not want to bear the child of the batterer. A scenario can arise that may go specifically toward justifying a partial birth abortion, in which a woman begins to be battered only late into her pregnancy, when a partial birth abortion is one of the only options. In this case, while she may have been perfectly reasonable in seeking to become pregnant, the reasons for having a baby (ie starting a family) would have changed as the abuse began and as the appropriateness of starting a family fades away. As such, such a victim may be justified in pursuing a late, partial birth abortion.
  • Responding to rape, a woman seeks and abortion. Impregnation from rape is one of the most commonly cited justifications for abortion, as the impregnation was completely involuntary on the part of the mother. Justifying partial birth abortions in these instances is largely an issue of timing. The main question is whether it is reasonable to expect that all woman act immediately upon their rape and impregnation by pursuing an abortion in the first term? It may be unreasonable, and a late, partial birth abortion may be appropriate, for the following reasons:
    • Female rape victims may be physically prevented by the rapist from seeking an abortion in the first term. Some rape victims are sex slaves or kidnapped against their will. If only became possible for them to perform an abortion in the second or third term with a partial birth abortion, should they be deprived the right to do so? Having had no "choice" in the matter up to this point, it may be appropriate to extend the "choice" to abort with a partial birth abortion in such circumstances.
    • Impregnated rape victims may be deterred from seeking an abortion at an early stage out of fear of reprisal from the rapist.
  • Serious illnesses
  • Women carrying defective fetuses


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Socio-economic factors - are their socio-economic reasons to ban partial birth abortion (are their socio-economic reasons to allow partial birth abortions)?

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Yes

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No

  • Contention that younger and poorer women are much more likely to have partial birth abortions due to lack of resources and information, making a ban on partial birth abortion socio-economically discriminatory. There are certain things that enable an abortion in the first trimester. Generally, these things include information, resources (financial), the availability of family planning clinics, and other things. Certain socio-economic and other groups, such as youth and poverty, are more likely to lack these necessary things. As such, younger and poorer women are commonly unaware of the need or plainly unable to seek abortions in the first trimester. It is possible to consider this an effect of factors outside of the control of these women. As such, many ask whether it is fair to create a law (a ban on partial birth abortion) that would disproportionately prohibit these women from opting to abort. In summary, the complaint is that partial birth abortion is a law that would be socio-economically discriminatory in its effect.
  • The facts seem to bear-out the assertion that younger and poorer women are more likely to opt for partial birth abortions. About.com - "Statistics report that 12% of abortions are performed after 12 weeks (3 months) of gestation, and 1.5% are performed after 20 weeks (5 months)of gestation. Many attribute the steady decrease in the proportion of abortions performed after the first trimester to increased access to and knowledge about birth control practices and safe, legal abortion services. Women who have abortions after the first trimester are generally younger and poorer than the statistical average of all who have abortions. Women under 18 years old obtain 30% of their subgroup's abortions after the first trimester."


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Fetus rights? - Does the fetus have rights that must be protected? (How does this all relate to partial birth abortion specifically?)

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Yes

  • Generally, for those that believe that a human life and person is begun upon conception, and that that life-form has rights, it is always wrong to perform any form of abortion; partial birth abortion or other.
  • "Unborn babies" that should have the same rights as born babies.
  • The mother generally considers her fetus to be her "unborn baby", waiting to enter the world, assigning it equal value as a born baby. BalancedPolitics.org 3/17/07 - "When a pregnant women feels a kick in her belly, she doesn't say 'Oh, the fetus kicked' or 'Oh, the mass of cells that hasn't become a person kicked', she says 'The baby kicked.' Yes, after conception you have a real human being waiting to enter the world. Why should taking someone's life when they're in the womb be any different than taking their life when they're a baby in the crib?"


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No

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Safety - Is partial birth abortion unsafe, less safe than other abortion procedures, or not clearly safer than other methods?

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Yes

Some maintain that there is no evidence that partial-birth abortions are safe or are safer than other abortion procedures.


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No

  • Contention that partial birth abortion is safe. "Many physicians and several professional organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists"[18] believe that partial birth abortion is the safest form of later term abortions.


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Societal arguments - Would society benefit in general from a ban on partial birth abortions?

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Yes

  • The societal contributions of a potentially valuable human being are wiped out. What would the world be like if the mothers of Abe Lincoln, George Washington, or Thomas Edison had had an abortion? Just maybe a woman has become pregnant despite all birth control attempts because the child is destined to do something great." - BalancedPolitics.org 2007


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No

  • "It's arguably better for society to have babies aborted than have them be brought up poor and neglected, where not only will the child suffer but society when that child develops a higher attraction to crime, welfare, etc. ...Without legalized abortion, a lot more women will become parents whether or not they want to be and whether or not they're ready to be. Raising a child properly is a full-time labor intensive process. The children who are neglected or abused are usually the ones that grow up to be drug addicts, lifelong government aid recipients, and criminals. Do we want to subject the child to such misery? Do we want to saddle society with the added burden? Some people say, 'What if Abe Lincoln's mom had an abortion?'. You could also ask, 'What if Adolf Hitler's or Saddam Hussein's mom had an abortion?'" - BalancedPolitics.org 3/17/07
  • "Back alley" abortions would increase if it were made illegal, leading to increased risk of young women dying or becoming sterile. Regardless of what laws are in place, there will always be young women out there who want to have an abortion. They may not want to face the wrath of their parents, the embarrassment at school, or the lifetime responsibility of motherhood. If we criminalize abortion, many woman will simply look for other ways to get rid of the child. They could starve themselves or seek unlicensed "back alley" abortions. So instead of getting an abortion in a controlled environment where there is one last chance for counseling on options, women may subject themselves to a potentially dangerous situation. These type of methods often lead to sterility or other harm, even death." - BalancedPolitics.org 3/17/07
  • "One brief mistake can take away a woman's childhood and trap her for life. We all make mistakes in our life, especially when we are young. The pressure to have sex at an early age is fierce in today's society. Even a girl who lives a good, responsible life can have one slip up. But that one slip-up can take away all her life plans and trap her. She may have planned to go to medical school, train for the Olympics, travel the world, or just have fun while she's still young. All this can be thrown down the drain with one brief mistake. We shouldn't penalize someone for life." - BalancedPolitics.org 3/17/07
  • Part of the mistake that a girl or woman might have made is not having used sex protection and/or not taking a pregnancy test and seeking an early, first term abortion. The argument here is that the provisions given to a woman should be as flexible as possible, affording her the "right" to make life-changing choices throughout the entire course of her pregnancy, and not locking her into an unwanted pregnancy after a certain point, as would be the case with a partial birth abortion ban. On an issue where great life-changing impact can occur from singular mistakes, and particularly when these mistakes are frequently made during an immature emotional period in a woman's life, it may be important for society to provide women with the benefit of the doubt and the flexibility to make major decisions throughout their pregnancy.
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Yes

  • Partial birth abortions are uniquely grotesque in the way that they inflict pain on the unborn fetus, which makes them distinctly different than other forms of abortion where it is less clear that the fetus experiences pain. Although many people who are against partial-birth abortion are against abortion in general, there is no necessary link, as partial-birth abortion is a particularly horrifying form of abortion. This is for the reasons already explained: it involves a deliberate, murderous physical assault on a half-born baby, whom we know for certain will feel pain and suffer as a result. We accept that there is some legitimate medical debate about whether embryos and earlier foetuses feel pain; there is no such debate in this case, and this is why partial-birth abortion is uniquely horrific, and uniquely unjustifiable.
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No

  • Opposition to partial-birth abortion is part of a strategy by anti-abortionists to ban abortion in general. - partial-birth abortions form a tiny proportion of all abortions, but from a medical and psychological point of view they ought to be the least controversial. The reason for this focus is that late-term abortions are the most obviously distasteful, because late-term foetuses look more like babies than embryos or foetuses at an earlier developmental stage. Late-term abortions therefore make for the best pro-life campaigning material. By attempting to focus the debate here, campaigners are aiming to conflate all abortions with late-term abortions, and to increase opposition to all abortion on that basis.


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Yes

  • A healthy fetus is equivalent in "viability" to premature babies, making it important to treat them with equivalent dignity. Healthy third-trimester fetuses can, with good medical care, survive outside the womb. It may be ethically conflicting that societies spend great resources trying to keep premature babies alive, and yet actively intervene to induce the premature birth of, and then crush the skulls of, perfectly healthy fetuses. If there is little difference in the nature and viability of an unborn, third-trimester fetus and a premature baby, it seems ethically conflicting to treat these similar creatures in such widely diverging ways. If partial birth abortion was still considered a "justified" choice of the mother, it may be important to consider this analogy in making partial birth abortions "more dignified" by banning the skull crushing procedure. This might make the treatment of unborn fetuses and premature babies more ethically consistent.


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No

  • A fetus cannot be compared to premature babies. The distinction is not absurd at all. The issue is not about the stage of development of the foetus/baby, but about whether or not it is wanted. It makes sense to try to keep a wanted baby alive. It does not make sense to force someone to continue to carry an unwanted foetus.


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Yes

  • If birth is the crucial dividing-line we use to decide when legal personhood begins, then we should not be allowed to induce birth and then deliberately kill a foetus during that process - this is different from early abortion in which birth is induced and the foetus dies naturally. Partial-birth abortion is murder, even on the pro-choice understanding of personhood.


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No

  • This is misleading - in partial-birth abortion, as the term suggests, the foetus is not fully born when it is killed: the purpose of collapsing the skull is to allow the foetus’ head to pass more easily through the birth canal. At no point in the process is a live foetus entirely outside the womb, so legal personhood is never an issue.


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Yes

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No

  • Adoption is a good option shows a fundamental lack of awareness of what is involved in carrying an unwanted foetus to term. Pregnancy can be stressful at the best of times; being forced to carry an unwanted child against your will is enormously traumatic, and can cause permanent psychological harm, as can the knowledge that your own unwanted child is growing up elsewhere and may one day return to find you. If a mother chooses to carry a foetus to term and then give it up for adoption, that’s fine, but nobody should force her to do so.


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Activist groups

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Yes

  • National Abortion Rights Action League National


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No

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Religious arguments - What are the pro and con religious, and religious-text-based arguments on partial birth abortions?

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Yes

  • Jewish law states that a fetus only becomes a person after its head has emerged. Because partial birth abortions involves the killing of the fetus before its head is removed from the womb, many Jews believe it is justified, under certain circumstances, as the fetus is not yet a "person" or "citizen". However, many Jews believe that partial birth abortion is only justified in exceptional cases in which it protects the mother.[19]


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No

  1. That the Bible doesn't mention abortion.
  2. That the Bible says that life begins upon first breath.
    1. The story of Adam's creation in Genesis 2:7 is the primary quote used here, when God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."
  3. That "thou shall not kill" is dependent on an interpretation of when life begins, which the Bible may indicates to only occur upon first breath.
  4. That the principle of "thou shall not kill" is consistently contradicted in the Bible with descriptions of God sanctioning seemingly arbitrary and mass killings.
  5. That God specifically sanctions the killing of babies in multiple narratives in the Bible, indicating that the Bible may not be "pro life" in the same way that many people interpret Jesus to have been pro-life.


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Public opinion

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Yes

  • The majority of Americans oppose late term abortions. Gallup Poll Question - Do you think abortion should generally be legal or generally illegal during the second three months of pregnancy? (65% said illegal in July of 1996, 69% said illegal in March of 2000, and 68% said illegal in January of 2003).


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No

Motions

  • This House would ban partial-birth abortions
  • This House would protect the unborn child
  • This House believes George Bush should keep his promises

See also

In legislation, policy, and the real world

External links and resources

Books

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