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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 1999 /21 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Life, death and the U.S. Senate -- ONCE AGAIN, a majority of the U.S. Senate has voted to ban partial-birth abortion, which its defenders prefer to call "intact dilation and extraction.'' Multisyllabic, latinate words are always preferable when a speaker doesn't want to be too specific about what he's advocating.

The only surprise in this debate was that its defenders didn't refer to partial-birth abortion as Collateral Damage. When politicians are uneasy about just what it is they're defending, they tend to throw a lot of Latin over it.

The abortion lobby sometimes claims it's not even pro-abortion, but pro-choice, even though the only choice it's defending is the choice to have an abortion. Verbal engineering always precedes social engineering.

Once the unborn child becomes a fetus, we have dehumanized the subject of this debate, and given ourselves permission to do with it as we will: keep or kill. Verbicide precedes homicide.

Fetus, termination, intact dilation and extraction. ... To quote George Orwell: "A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up the details.''

Whatever this latest procedure is called, it involves partially delivering the baby, feet-first, keeping its head in the birth canal, and suctioning out its brains before the entire, now dead baby -- excuse me, fetus -- is removed. Is this still abortion, or is it infanticide? It's about half one, half the other -- or maybe three-quarters one, one-quarter the other.

These are the fine distinctions now regularly debated on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Subjects that once naturally inspired a shudder, and roused every maternal and paternal instinct, are now smothered in latinate verbiage and set out to cool. Welcome to technologically sophisticated, spiritually retarded America circa 1999. We have forgotten how to shudder.

Once again, a majority of the U. S. Senate has voted against this form of barbarism by whichever name, and once again, the president of the United States is sure to veto this bill. Why, defenders of abortion ask, keep bringing it up? It's a futile gesture. Besides, they'd rather not be bothered. One can understand why. In another century, nice people who really didn't hold with slavery, but were prepared to let others practice it (call them pro-choice), also grew exasperated with the kind of troublemakers who wanted Congress to outlaw it in the territories.

The anti-slavery movement may have been the first example of single-issue politics on the American scene, and we all know how irksome that can be. Every session of Congress, these agitators produced their little bill outlawing slavery in the territories -- the Wilmot Proviso, it was called -- and every session it would get voted down. But they never stopped adding their proviso onto the really important bills. (Can anyone now recall just what they were?)

Those supporting this ban on partial-birth abortion will doubtless be back, too. And, who knows, still more senators, maybe even the two-thirds of the Senate needed to assure its passage, will someday find their conscience stirred. And this president's veto will not avail. Or another president may one day affix his signature to the bill and end this atrocity.

The defenders of partial-birth abortion are right about one thing: This debate isn't about one form of abortion or infanticide, just as the movement to abolish slavery in the territories wasn't about slavery only in the territories.

Those old abolitionists understood something: Capture the people's attention, rouse them to the danger of a spreading cancer, stamp out the Peculiar Institution in the new states to be carved out of the West, and slavery would not be able to expand, or even long survive. The slave states would not be able to establish new markets for their slaves in the West. They would not be able to shape the America of the future -- its economy and society and character. For people who have not grown up with slavery have a hard time accepting it. They might look at it and see it fresh -- as the horror it is.

This annual debate on one form of abortion shines a glaring light on abortion in general, tearing away all those layers of euphemism, and opening eyes, hearts, minds. That's why the pro-abortion lobby dreads this continuing debate and just wants it to go away; it stirs too many feelings, it opens too many minds, it examines too many unexamined assumptions.

Should these new abolitionists ever succeed in banning partial-birth abortion, they doubtless will go on to challenge the practice of unrestricted abortion any way they can ... till the fetus is again recognized as something human.

Back when slavery, and not abortion, was the single issue being debated, an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate put it this way: A house divided against itself cannot stand; it will become all one thing or all the other. It's the natural dynamic of good and evil at work. Each must spread -- or shrivel. That same candidate -- his name was Lincoln -- once said he must have voted for the Wilmot Proviso "about forty times'' as a congressman.

Whatever the vote count in the Senate this year, no fight on behalf of a good cause is ever lost. If it takes 40 roll calls or 400 to abolish partial-birth abortion, these new abolitionists will keep coming back.

And more and more of those on the other side of this question -- good, decent people who just don't want to think about abortion anymore, who are tired of hearing about it -- might think again, listen again and feel again. This issue isn't going away. Life is hard to stamp out.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate