Crossing the Line: The Political and Moral Battle Over Late-Term Abortion

Posted: 27 May 1999


This paper focuses on the political and moral debate surrounding two pieces of federal legislation which sought to criminalize a particular late term abortion technique scientifically known as "intact dilation and extraction," and popularly known as "partial birth abortion." The Congressional "Partial Birth Abortion" Bans of 1996 and 1997 inflamed the already emotionally charged contest over abortion rights. The intense lobbying and advocacy efforts put pro-choice activists in the uncomfortable position of having to defend one of the most extreme positions on the abortion-rights spectrum. The advocacy was further complicated by the fact that very few women obtain late term abortions in America each year, that relatively little is known about them, and that many (but not all) of them are already marginalized by youth, lack of education, and poverty.

The uneasiness of even the pro-choice community in dealing with the issue became particularly salient in the tactical, representational, and rhetorical strategies that pro-choice opponents of the legislation used. They highlighted the most morally-appealing segment of women who obtain late-term abortions ? those who seek the procedure only after learning that their pregnancies pose a threat to maternal health. Pro-choice advocates emphasized these health risks, and focused on particular qualities about these women which gave them greater normative credibility: the fact that they were all older, married women whose pregnancies were intended and for whom abortion was a terrible last resort.

The reality, however, is that the majority of women and girls who seek the late term procedure do so prior to fetal viability and for "elective" ? non-health-related ? reasons. Research indicates that they are often young, poor, and lacking in education and resources. The fact that these abortions are both non-therapeutic and late term makes them the most morally offensive to many people. Perhaps both because of their already marginalized positions and the lack of moral persuasiveness surrounding their stories, these women and girls were not included in the representational or rhetorical strategies of pro-choice advocates. Thus, pro-choice advocates relied on the narratives of a small group of women to represent the interests of a much larger and dissimilar group. This reinforced the invisibility and powerlessness of the women in the larger group, and could have resulted in a conflict of interest between the two groups had a maternal health exception been added to the bans.

These tensions were brought to light during a contentious battle over the numbers of, and reasons for, late term abortions. Pro-choice advocates were confronted with a statistical reality which was difficult to introduce in the political and popular discourse. They adopted a representational strategy which could have had disastrous political results. The confusion, however, may ultimately have positive effects. An analysis of the debate can serve as a diagnostic tool for underlying tensions within the pro-choice movement, and stimulate ideas for more effective and thorough advocacy.

Suggested Citation

Oliveri, Rigel Christine, Crossing the Line: The Political and Moral Battle Over Late-Term Abortion. Available at SSRN:

Rigel Christine Oliveri (Contact Author)

University of Missouri School of Law ( email )

Missouri Avenue & Conley Avenue
Columbia, MO MO 65211
United States

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