As Ronald Reagan prepared for his presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in October 1980, some Reagan aides pondered how their candidate should respond if Carter unearthed some of the at-times-too-colorful things Reagan had said over the years. For example, when in 1974 Patty Hearst’s kidnappers demanded the distribution of free canned goods, Reagan reportedly quipped that this would be a good time for an outbreak of botulism. What, an aide wondered, should Reagan say about that? After a long pause, a wit suggested: "He should say it was taken out of context."
In a letter in last week’s NEWSWEEK, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said that, in the previous issue, this columnist got her position on late-term abortion "wrong" by "taking my words out of context." Well.
C-Span recorded her words in the Oct. 20, 1999, Senate colloquy that can be seen today on YouTube. The colloquy concerned the procedure commonly called "partial-birth" abortion. Boxer and other maximalists regarding the "right to choose" prefer the more anodyne but less descriptive phrase "late-term" abortion. Readers can decide which is the more candid denotation of this: The baby is about 80 percent delivered, feet first, until a portion of the skull is exposed. Then the skull is punctured and collapsed as its contents are sucked out.
In the 1999 colloquy, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said: Suppose during this procedure the baby slips entirely from the mother’s birth canal. "You agree, once a child is born, is separated from the mother, that that child is protected by the Constitution and cannot be killed? Do you agree with that?" Boxer: "I think when you bring your baby home, when your baby is born … the baby belongs to your family and has all the rights." Santorum persisted: "Obviously, you don’t mean they have to take the baby out of the hospital for it to be protected by the Constitution. Once the baby is separated from the mother, you would agree—completely separated from the mother—you would agree that the baby is entitled to constitutional protection?" She would not say "yes." Instead, she said, understandably: "I don’t want to engage in this."
Two issues ago, this column said, "It is theoretically impossible to fashion an abortion position significantly more extreme than Boxer’s, which is slightly modified infanticide." Her "when you bring your baby home" criterion means that a born baby acquires a right to life only when a mother or family decides to confer that right.
She also says she opposes partial-birth abortion "except in cases to save the life or health of the mother." But the "health" exception is widely recognized as a loophole designed to, and large enough to, vitiate any law banning the procedure: An abortion-providing doctor can say that a mother’s mental health is threatened by depression or anxiety about being denied an abortion, however late in the third trimester of gestation.
Boxer is caught in the intellectual chaos created by the Supreme Court’s slipshod 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. In it the court was squeamish about a stark fact: Abortion kills. Flinching from that, the court called a fetus "potential life." But it is elementary biology that when the chromosomes of sperm fuse with those of an ovum, a new DNA complex is formed that directs the organism’s subsequent development. The serious argument about abortion, concerning which decent people differ, is about the moral significance and proper legal status of fetal life at various stages of the gestational continuum.
The court, having flaunted its faux modesty by refusing to say what every high-school biology student knows—when life begins—then immodestly dismissed a deep philosophic mystery by decreeing when "meaningful" life begins. It said it begins at viability—the point at which life can be lived outside the womb.
In a colloquy on Sept. 26, 1996, Santorum asked two senators, Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)—both opponents of actually banning partial-birth abortion, both still serving—if killing a baby that had slipped entirely from the birth canal would still be a "choice" that the mother (which she indisputably would then be) had a constitutionally protected right to make. Neither senator said "no." Feingold said it would be up to the woman and her doctor. Lautenberg agreed.
We have a record of this 1996 exchange only because of C-Span. Congressional Record, supposedly a transcript of what is said on the Senate floor, was altered. One can understand why.