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It has long been accepted as a legal principle that infants who are born alive are persons entitled to the protection of the law, and that a live birth occurs whenever an infant, at any stage of development, is expelled from the mother's body and displays any of several specific signs of life breathing, a heartbeat, or definite movements of voluntary muscles. Many states have statutes that explicitly enshrine this principle as a matter of state law, and federal courts have recognized the principle in interpreting federal criminal laws. Recent changes in the legal and cultural landscape appear, however, to have brought this well-settled principle into question.
Just weeks ago, for example, in Stenberg v. Carhart, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law banning partial-birth abortion, a procedure in which an abortionist delivers an unborn child's body until only the head remains inside of the mother, punctures the back of the child's skull with scissors, and sucks the child's brains out before completing the delivery. What was described in Roe v. Wade as a right to abort "unborn children" has now been extended by the Court to include the violent destruction of partially-born children just inches from birth.
The logical implications of the Stenberg Court's holding are both obvious and disturbing. Consider what the Stenberg decision means for a child who survives a botched abortion and is born alive. If the right to abortion entails the right to kill without regard to whether the child remains in the mother's womb, it would seem to follow that infants who are marked for abortion but somehow survive have no legal right to appropriate medical care, or any care at all.
And if a child born alive after a botched abortion does not receive the protection of the law, what is to prevent an abortionist from simply delivering a child and then killing it?
It has been successfully argued before the Supreme Court that killing a partially-born child is at least in some cases necessary to protect the health of the mother. An equally plausible argument might be made that in some cases preservation of the mother's health requires that the child be fully delivered before it is killed. If partial-birth abortion is protected by the Constitution, why not "post-birth abortion?"
The principle that born-alive infants are entitled to the protection of the law is also being questioned at one of America's most prestigious universities. Princeton University Bioethicist Peter Singer argues that parents should have the option to kill disabled or unhealthy newborn babies for a certain period after birth. According to Professor Singer, "a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to live as others."
The legal and moral confusion that flows from these pernicious ideas is well illustrated by events that happened last year in Cincinnati, Ohio, after a young woman learned she was pregnant and sought the assistance of the abortionist Dr. Martin Haskell, inventor of one variation of the partial-birth abortion procedure. Dr. Haskell performed the first step of the partial-birth abortion procedure dilating the woman's cervix and she was to return the next day. That evening the woman began experiencing severe abdominal pains and reported to the emergency room. While she was being examined she gave birth to a baby girl. The attending physician placed the baby in a specimen dish like any other substance that is removed from the body to be taken to the lab by a medical technician. When the technician, Shelly Lowe, saw the baby girl in the dish she was stunned when she saw the girl gasping for air.
The doctors examined the baby and concluded it was unlikely she would survive. By some estimates the baby was born at 22 weeks, although some members of the hospital staff believed she was older. Ms. Lowe then held the baby, whom she named "Baby Hope," until the child died, wrapping her in a blanket and singing to her as she stroked her cheeks. Surprisingly, Baby Hope lived for three hours, without the benefit of an incubator or other intensive care, and breathing room air, but her condition was not reassessed by the physicians. And although it is impossible to determine at this point whether a reassessment would have made any difference in Baby Hope's ultimate survival, the lack of any such reassessment, coupled with the attending physician's initial placement of then-breathing Baby Hope in a specimen dish, at least raises serious questions as to whether a similarly-situated infant who was wanted by her mother would have received the same treatment. We will also hear testimony today regarding disturbing events at a hospital in Illinois.
H.R. 4292, the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2000, was designed to repudiate the pernicious and destructive ideas that have brought the live-birth principle into question, and to firmly establish that, for purposes of federal law, an infant who is completely expelled or extracted from his or her mother and who is alive is, indeed, a person under the law regardless of whether or not his or her lung development is believed to be, or is in fact, sufficient to permit long-term survival, and regardless of whether the baby survived an abortion. The bill would not require medical personnel to provide medical treatment that is not currently mandated under the applicable standard of care. Instead, the bill would only insure that all born-alive infants regardless of their age and regardless of the circumstances of their birth are treated the same for purposes of federal law.
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Posted 15 Oct 2000.
Copyright 2000 by Pregnant Pause