LegalWorks Apostolate - Counsel for a Culture of Life

What, Exactly, Is an Abortion, and Why Does It Matter?

By E. Scott Lloyd

Let us together think through a few questions that have important consequences for our current health policy:

1. If a doctor induces labor, and a baby is born alive as a result, this is not an abortion, correct? A termination of a pregnancy has occurred, though, has it not?

2. If a doctor intended to abort a baby, but the baby is born alive, what do we call that? Would it be wrong to call it a botched abortion? This is also the termination of a pregnancy, correct?

3. If a baby dies in utero, and the woman has not yet delivered the baby, isn't she pregnant while the baby is inside her, even though the baby is no longer alive? If she is not "pregnant"" what is the term we use when a woman is carrying a baby who is no longer alive?

4. Often during fertility treatment, a woman will decide to reduce the number of babies she is carrying?"too many" embryos have implanted in her uterus. To "take care" of this "problem," a doctor will often inject poison into the placenta of the unlucky baby, killing it in the beginning stages of its life. The pregnancy goes on with one less baby. This is known as a "selective abortion" or "selective reduction." This is, as the name indicates, an abortion, but there is no termination of a pregnancy.

All of this illustrates a few points, and one that is particularly important. First, any definition of abortion as "the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy" (New Oxford American Dictionary), or "a safe and legal way to end a pregnancy," (Planned Parenthood's website) has it wrong, or at least not totally right. As we have seen above, termination of a pregnancy can occur, even deliberately, without there being an abortion. A doctor terminates a pregnancy every time he induces labor.

Second, anyone (Merriam-Webster) who defines "abortion" as "the termination of a pregnancy after, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the embryo or fetus," would be more accurate, but wouldn't be quite right, since it is clear from item four above that it is possible to have an abortion without terminating a pregnancy. Whether the pregnancy is terminated turns out to be a somewhat superfluous detail.

Which brings us to the main point: the defining event in an abortion, as we use the term in our common parlance and in medical settings, is the death of a human being who has not yet been born.

Since this is the case, the most accurate definition of abortion is one like that found in Blessed John Paul II's encyclical, Evangelium Vitae: "the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth."

The problem with this definition, though, is that it is too accurate for some. It includes in "abortion" certain interventions that rich and politically influential companies can sell easier if consumers think of them as "contraception." The intrauterine device (IUD), Plan B, Ella, and the conventional contraceptive pill all fall into the category of interventions that work either partly or exclusively by killing nascent human life, but that many call or consider to be a "contraceptive."

This is no simple misunderstanding or reasonable disagreement. It is, rather, the result of a documented, conscious effort to change the "habits of speech" of the medical field?one that would make George Orwell rend his garments.

Any serious pro-lifer should have a copy of the volume, now out of print but available used on, of Blessed are the Barren: The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood by Robert Marshall (now a Virginia State Delegate) and Charles Donovan. In a chapter entitled Old Lies and New Labels, they detail how early advocates for contraceptive measures realized that they in fact were, at times, causing early abortions. As Dr. Abraham Stone of Planned Parenthood noted in 1952, for example:

the mechanical and chemical methods currently employed, or any biologic method that would prevent ovulation or fertilization merely prevent life from beginning?Measures designed to prevent implantation fall into a different category. Here there is a question of destroying a life already begun.

These advocates knew that if methods of contraception were perceived to cause abortions, that both Catholic and Protestant denominations would reject the technologies. Accordingly, Planned Parenthood and its ilk began "efforts to redefine nearly every term in the lexicon of human reproduction: pregnancy, conception, abortion, and human being or person." At a 1959 Planned Parenthood-Population Council joint symposium, Bent Boving, a Swedish fertility researcher, noted with accuracy, "Whether eventual control of implantation can be reserved the social advantage of being considered to prevent conception rather than to destroy an established pregnancy could depend on something so simple as a prudent habit of speech."

Indeed, this was an important habit of speech to change, because in 1963, abortion was illegal in every state in the union, and ironically in light of its recent policy on contraceptives, it was the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (predecessor to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) that noted,

All the measures which impair the viability of the zygote at any time between the instant of fertilization and the completion of labor constitute, in the strict sense, procedures for inducing abortion. Administration of such compounds whose mechanism of action is of this character to man as either an investigative procedure or as a practical birth control technique poses technical legal questions that have not yet been resolved.

When in 1964 another Doctor affiliated with Planned Parenthood and the Population Council, Dr. Christopher Tietze, noted of jurists and theologians that "if a medical consensus develops and is maintained that pregnancy, and therefore life, begins at implantation, eventually our brethren from the other faculties will listen," it was the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology that responded in 1965 with its first-ever Terminology Bulletin, stating that, "CONCEPTION is the implantation of a fertilized ovum."

It was ultimately the popular understanding of pregnancy, rather than conception or even life, that changed as a result of this effort. This was enough, however, to have some serious consequences.

The fruits of this effort we should mention here are twofold. The first is that large, rich, and powerful corporations are telling many women and men who would have an objection to abortion that their actions are not causing one, when in fact they are.

The second is the Obama Administration's adoption of a policy recommending coverage at no immediate cost to the consumer of several forms of contraceptives that fit into the most accurate definition of abortion above, although the empowering statute forbids funding abortions.

In other words, our tax dollars are being used to help trick people into aborting their own children, when they would not do so if someone was not lying to them. This trick is also enabling these same recipients of tax dollars, Planned Parenthood, for example, to break the law.

State legislation could provide clarification where propagandists have intentionally fouled things. It is, after all, states that license medical professionals. Even if federal law mandates that insurance plans include coverage for abortifacient interventions, states could require doctors to make it clear to consumers what is actually occurring when they consume the drug. Given the grave moral implications for patients of such interventions, regardless of the religious perspective, this seems to be an effort most serious pro-life legislators can get behind.

Scott Lloyd is an attorney for LegalWorks Apostolate in Front Royal, Virginia, and is a contributing writer for HLI America. Formerly an attorney for the US Department of Health and Human Services, his areas of work include health law and policy, conscience rights, family law, and communications law.

Copyright © 2011 Center for Morality in Public Life. All Rights Reserved.

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