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Marketing the Partial Birth Abortion Ban

April 18, 2007

On its face, today's Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Carhart is a victory for abortion foes seeking to ban one rarely used but seemingly horrific procedure. But in the bigger picture, the Court's validation of the 2003 Partial Birth Abortion Act is a landscape-changing triumph for conservatives' slippery slope campaign to chip away at the reproductive and privacy rights of American women.
That's because anti-abortion forces never really cared about intact dilation and extraction, a rare practice used in extreme late-term cases perhaps 2500 times annually. No, as its own advocates freely admit, the so-called partial birth abortion was all about marketing.
For example, in 1996, John Jakubczyk, the general counsel of Arizona Right to Life, stated that "by going after partial-birth abortions, we're trying to show the extreme radical view of the pro-abortion lobby. But no, that procedure isn't what we care most about. Our goal is to stop the killing of unborn children at any stage of development."
Jakubczyk was far from alone in bluntly expressing the strategic significance of their two-decade battle to ban the procedure. As NARAL documented during the bill's debate in 2003, the mouthpieces of the anti-abortion movement were singing from the same hymnal:
"(The) partial-birth abortion ban is a political scam but a public relations goldmine...This bill, if it becomes law, may not save one child's life...The major benefit of this bill is the debate that surrounds it."
- Randall Terry, Founder, Operation Rescue), News Release, September 15, 2003.
"The partial-birth abortion strategy was designed to: a) emphasize the horror of partial-birth abortion to the general public by, b) introducing legislation to outlaw it, thus c) exposing pro-abortion legislators who would oppose the legislation for the brutes that they are, causing them to be unseated. This was a sure win (so we were told), and once partial-birth abortion was outlawed, then we could move on to outlawing other forms of abortion."
- Matt Trewhella (Director of Missionaries to the Preborn, Milwaukee), Life Advocate, January/February 1998.
"This week we will make history in the House of Representatives. Now we will begin to focus on the methods (of abortion) and declare them to be illegal."
- Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.) USA Today, November 1, 1995.
"They (pro-choice groups) have always been able to demonize us with the hard cases -- the incest and rape cases. We've never been able to do that (until today)...It's a huge victory (the House override of Clinton's veto of H.R. 1833). It's the first time since Roe v. Wade that Congress is poised to outlaw an abortion procedure and the first time the pro-choice side has had to defend the indefensible."
- Ralph Reed (then-Executive Director, Christian Coalition) The Dallas Morning News, September 20, 1996.
As I noted in 2004, we've been here before and will be here again. (Just consider the debate in South Carolina over a proposed ultrasound requirement for abortion patients.) The much longer and protracted debate over partial-birth abortion showcases the conservatives' slippery-slope formula for sabotaging the American consensus for abortion rights. First, highlight a viscerally gruesome medical procedure (as in the case of intact dilation and extraction) that evinces a powerful gut-level reaction or a case that generates natural feelings of sympathy (such as Laci Peterson). Second, play on and publicize apparent majority support for banning the practice in question. Last, brand the practice using a term, such as "partial-birth" or "unborn victim," which makes opposition virtually impossible.
As with the "Unborn Victims of Violence" bill, the forces aligned against abortion rights were clear about their intent. It's just too bad so many Democrats believed their marketing.

One comment on “Marketing the Partial Birth Abortion Ban”


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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