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Partial-Birth Abortion:  What Is It?

By George Delgado, M.D.


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I was struck recently that some friends didn't know what partial-birth abortion is.  This procedure is known in medical parlance as "intact dilation and extraction."

Partial-birth abortion has been in the news the last several months as the current presidential campaign tempo has peaked.  Also, in June, the United States Supreme Court decided to strike down a Nebraska law that banned partial-birth abortion.

The purpose of this column is not to comment on the morality or ethics of partial-birth abortion.  That more important issue will be left to other forums.  Rather, the purpose is to inform readers who may not know exactly what the technique entails.  An important caveat:  The descriptions below, while purposely kept very clinical, might still be offensive to some.  Particularly, parents may want to avoid having their children read this column.

Partial-birth abortion is a technique that was developed to abort fetuses in the late second trimester and in the third trimester of pregnancy.  The doctor uses various means to dilate or expand the cervix, which is the opening to the uterus or womb. Then by manipulating the mother's abdomen and by using instruments, the baby is turned so that it is in the footling breech or feet-down position.

With an instrument, the legs of the fetus are grasped and pulled out of the birth canal - hence the name "partial birth" abortion. The head, being the largest part of the fetal body, remains in the uterus.  A pair of scissors or other sharp instrument is inserted into the back of the skull creating a hole.  Then a suction instrument is inserted into the skull, and parts of its contents are aspirated so as to collapse the head.  With the head now reduced in size, the fetal body can then be completely delivered out of the mother's uterus and the procedure is completed.

According to the law, since the life is ended while the head is still inside the mother's womb, the procedure is an abortion and not infanticide.  Under current law, if the baby is completely delivered from the birth canal alive, he or she has legal protections just as like
other person.

George Delgado, 2001

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