A Question For Gore Next Week

Mr. Vice President, do you favor passage of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, or do you believe, as your supporters at the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) do, that a woman who seeks an abortion has an indefeasible right to a dead baby, no matter what?" Here is the story behind that question, which George W. Bush should ask Al Gore next week during the first debate.

The act, authored by Rep. Charles Canady, Republican of Florida, would extend the law's protections--would protect the right to life--to infants who survive abortions. Such babies sometimes are born as a result of abortions sought because the babies have (or sometimes are mistakenly thought to have) defects like Down syndrome or spina bifida. The House committee that passed Canady's bill 22 to 1 heard heart-rending testimony about born-alive babies being discarded alive into soiled hospital linen or left on a baby scale, unattended, without warmth or nourishment, their hearts beating and limbs moving, until they died.

Canady's bill responds to the recent radical extension of the pro-choice agenda. The federal court that overturned New Jersey's ban on partial-birth abortion cavalierly declared it "nonsensical" and "irrational" to believe that an infant's physical location relative to the mother has any relevance as to whether she may choose to have it killed. This pushes abortion rights beyond Roe v. Wade's framework. Roe's distinction--now a crumbling wall against infanticide--held that a child's legal status depended on whether the child was "unborn" or "born"--that is, the status depended on the child's location in relation to the body of the mother. Now the federal judiciary is close to saying that a child marked for abortion can be killed even if it is born alive. Canady notes that under this new radicalism, "a real child, with an objective existence, is treated as merely a conceptual construct, and in that way, swept aside as though he or she had no existence at all that anyone was obliged to recognize." The bill would acknowledge that, at the very least, when a baby is fully born it has an intrinsic dignity and a claim to the protection of law, irrespective of whether it is wanted.

The bill is a mild measure against the abortion-rights lobby's increasingly infanticidal agenda. Yet NARAL shrilly says the bill is an "anti-choice assault" that would interfere with "the medical decision-making process." However, NARAL's opposition is understandable, given its mission. If a baby alive moments after an attempted abortion has a right to life, why exactly did it utterly lack such a right moments before? And a week before that? A month?

But by its opposition NARAL is endorsing a central tenet of the right-to-life argument. The tenet is that it is arbitrary, and morally and philosophically problematic, to say that a baby has no intrinsic dignity, and that its claim to respect for its life is contingent on its physical location or on whether it suits the convenience of anyone else. That tenet should, but does not, trouble the Supreme Court majority.

In June, when the court declared unconstitutional Nebraska's ban on partial-birth abortion, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said that such abortions, although gruesome, might be safer for the woman than the common procedure of using instruments to dismember the child in the womb:

"The use of instruments within the uterus creates a danger of accidental perforation and damage to neighboring organs. Sharp fetal bone fragments create similar dangers. And fetal tissue accidentally left behind can cause infection and various other complications."

But if avoidance of those dangers justifies killing an almost-entirely delivered baby, why not be even safer and just deliver the baby and then kill it or let it die? After all, even partial-birth abortion requires insertion of some instruments into the woman.

Now that one of the nation's finest universities (Princeton) has given a prestigious position to an advocate of infanticide (Peter Singer suggests that for perhaps a month after birth parents should be entitled to dispose of unwanted children), it is not surprising that the Senate has what deserves to be called an Infanticide Caucus. The caucus has at least three members.

Two of them, Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, and Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, identified themselves when, during the Sept. 26, 1996, debate on partial-birth abortion, Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, asked: Suppose during such an abortion (during which a baby is delivered feet first until all but a portion of the skull is outside the mother, then its skull is punctured, its contents vacuumed, then collapsed) the baby slips all the way out of the birth canal. Should killing the baby even then be a permissible choice? Neither senator would say "no."

During the Oct. 20, 1999, debate Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, joined the caucus:

Santorum: "You agree, once a child is born, 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..."

She said more. What she would not say was "yes."

A Germantown, Md., teenager, who has been convicted of attempted first-degree murder, will soon be sentenced for trying to kill her newborn child. After giving birth in a bathtub, she abandoned the baby in an unheated trash room on a January morning. Considering that partial-birth abortion is a fundamental constitutional right, and pro-choice people like NARAL oppose Canady's bill, the teenager will be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, she did that was so wrong.

Some pro-choice people cast their opposition to Canady's bill almost as a matter of protecting consumer rights--a woman purchasing an abortion is entitled to a dead baby. Does Al Gore agree? If not, why not?