Remarks by Representative Henry Hyde on Prohibition of Partial Birth Abortions Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Supporters of the pro-life movement rally around Dallas City Hall on January 22, 1996, the 23rd anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Supporters of the pro-life movement rally around Dallas City Hall on January 22, 1996, the 23rd anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.


By: Henry Hyde

Date: September 19, 1996

Source: U.S. House of Representatives. Remarks by Representative Henry Hyde on Prohibition of Partial Birth Abortions. H.R. 1833, 104th Cong., 2nd sess. Congressional Record, September 19, 1996, vol. 142.

About the Author: Henry Hyde (1924–) was born in Chicago, Illinois. In 1942, he enlisted in the United States Navy, and he saw combat in the Philippines during World War II (1941–1945). In 1949, Hyde earned a law degree from Loyola University–Chicago. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois in 1974, and he chaired the powerful House Judiciary Committee from 1995–2001. During the Clinton impeachment trial in the Senate, he was the lead House manager.


Prior to 1973, the vast majority of states in the United States classified abortion as a felony offense. This criminalization was a relatively recent phenomenon. Under colonial common law, abortions performed before "quickening," the first recognizable fetus movements in utero appearing around the seventeenth week of pregnancy, were not a crime because the fetus was regarded as a part of the mother. Moreover, abortions were considered misdemeanors when performed after quickening. In the early 1800s, scientists discovered that human life did not begin at quickening, but rather at fertilization during conception. By the mid-nineteenth century, a powerful anti-abortion movement, led by the American Medical Association (AMA), successfully lobbied many states to prohibit all abortions. By 1860, eighty-five percent of the nation's population resided in states that prohibited abortions. Nearly one hundred years later, all fifty states had banned abortion.

Since the 1950s, however, an abortion reform movement gained momentum. Advocates were alarmed at the significant number of women who were forced to undergo the dangerous procedure in unsanitary back allies or garrets by poorly trained abortionists. By 1967, following the complete reversal on the issue by the AMA, Colorado and California legalized some abortions. In 1970, New York, which had passed the country's first abortion law in 1828, became the sixteenth state to legalize the procedure.

In 1973, in the landmark cases Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the United States Supreme Court for the first time recognized that the constitutional right to privacy allowed a woman to abort her fetus at any point in the pregnancy, as long as the mother's "health" was in danger. The court broadly defined the word "health" to include a number of social and economic problems, as judged by the mother herself. After the Roe decision, abortion became a bitterly divisive political issue. Abortion advocates believed that each woman has the right to make reproductive decisions for herself; anti-abortion forces believed in the right to life of the unborn.

In 1992, anti-abortion advocates devised a "modest, first step" strategy they hoped would lead to the total prohibition of late-term abortions. By seeking to ban partial-birth abortion, anti-abortion advocates forced abortion rights supporters (many of whom advocate for no limitations on the availability of abortion) defend the procedure. That year, anti-abortion advocates publicized a doctor who had performed 700 "D&X" (dilation and extraction) procedures. The vast majority of these abortions were elective procedures, occurring in late-term pregnancies. Even the AMA opposed this surgical procedure, which destroyed a living fetus, whose kicking feet were out of the birth canal during the procedure. In 1995, U.S. Representative Charles T. Canady introduced H.R. 1833, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. The measure passed the House on a vote of 288-139 and the Senate 54-44. However, in April 1996, President Bill Clinton (served 1993–2001) vetoed the bill. On September 19, 1996, the House debated whether to override the veto.


The House overrode the veto by more than the required two-thirds vote. However, in the Senate, the measure failed to override the veto. Abortion advocates supported President Clinton's veto because, if enacted, it would have constituted the first federal ban on a form of abortion. It also would have been the first step in the prohibition of all late-term abortions. Because the veto was sustained, thirty-one states enacted laws banning partial-birth abortion between 1995 and 2002. However, in 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court, in Stenberg v. Carhart, invalidated a Nebraska statute that prohibited the procedure, as the law lacked an exception to protect the mother's health. Similar bills were introduced in Congress in 1999 and 2002, but died.

Primary Source: Remarks by Representative Henry Hyde on Prohibition of Partial Birth Abortions [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: In this speech, Representative Hyde spoke out in defense of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act, describing the procedure and stating his belief that it went beyond what was an acceptable medical procedure.

Mr. Speaker, I beg the indulgence of my colleagues not to ask me to yield because I cannot and will not and I would appreciate their courtesy. I also want to say briefly that those who have charged us with politics, invidious politics, for delaying this debate ought to understand that Americans cannot believe this practice exists and it has taken months to educate the American people and it will take many more months to educate them as to the nature and extent of this horrible practice. That is one reason it has taken so long.

The law exists to protect the weak from the strong. That is why we are here.

Mr. Speaker, in his classic novel Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky has his murderous protagonist Raskolnikov complain that "Man can get used to anything, the beast!"

That we are even debating this issue, that we have to argue about the legality of an abortionist plunging a pair of scissors into the back of the tiny neck of a little child whose trunk, arms and legs have already been delivered, and then suctioning out his brains only confirms Dostoyevsky's harsh truth.

We were told in committee by an attending nurse that the little arms and legs stop flailing and suddenly stiffen as the scissors is plunged in. People who say "I feel your pain" are not referring to that little infant.

What kind of people have we become that this procedure is even a matter for debate? Can we not draw the line at torture, and baby torture at that? If we cannot, what has become of us? We are all incensed about ethnic cleansing. What about infant cleansing? There is no argument here about when human life begins. The child who is destroyed is unmistakably alive, unmistakably human and unmistakably brutally destroyed.

The justification for abortion has always been the claim that a women can do with her own body what she will. If you still believe that this four-fifths delivered little baby is a part of the woman's body, then I am afraid your ignorance is invincible.

I finally figured out why supporters of abortion on demand fight this infanticide ban tooth and claw, because for the first time since Roe v. Wade the focus is on the baby, not the mother, not the woman, but the baby, and the harm that abortion inflicts on an unborn child, or in this instance a four-fifths born child. That child whom the advocates of abortion on demand have done everything in their power to make us ignore, to dehumanize, is as much a bearer of human rights as any Member of this House. To deny those rights is more than the betrayal of a powerless individual. It betrays the central promise of America, that there is, in this land, justice for all.

The supporters of abortion on demand have exercised an amazing capacity for detaching themselves from any sympathy whatsoever for the unborn child, and in doing so they separate themselves from the instinct for justice that gave birth to this country.

The President, reacting angrily to this challenge to his veto, claims not to understand why the morality of those who support a ban on partial birth abortions is superior to the morality of "compassion" that he insists informed his decision to reject Congress' ban on what Senator Moynihan has said is "too close to infanticide."

Let me explain, Mr. President. There is no moral nor, for that matter, medical justification for this barbaric assault on a partially born infant. Dr. Pamela Smith, director of medical education in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Chicago's Mount Sinai Hospital, testified to that, as have many other doctors.

Dr. C. Everett Koop, the last credible Surgeon General we had, was interviewed by the American Medical Association on August 19, and he was asked:

Question: "President Clinton just vetoed a bill on partial birth abortions. In so doing, he cited several cases in which women were told these procedures were necessary to preserve their health and their ability to have future pregnancies. How would you characterize the claims being made in favor of the medical need for this procedure?"

Answer: Quoting Dr. Koop, "I believe that Mr. Clinton was misled by his medical advisors on what is fact and what is fiction in reference to late term abortions."

Question: "In your practice as a pediatric surgeon, have you ever treated children with any of the disabilities cited in this debate? Have you operated on children born with organs outside of their bodies?"

Answer: "Oh, yes, indeed. I've done that many times. The prognosis usually is good. There are two common ways that children are born with organs outside of their body. One is an omphalocele, where the organs are out but still contained in the sac composed of the tissues of the umbilical cord. I have been repairing those since 1946. The other is when the sac has ruptured. That makes it a little more difficult. I don't know what the national mortality would be, but certainly more than half of those babies survive after surgery.

"Now every once in a while, you have other peculiar things, such as the chest being wide open and the heart being outside the body. And I have even replaced hearts back in the body and had children grow to adulthood."

Question: And live normal lives?

Answer: Living normal lives. In fact, the first child I ever did with a huge omphalocele much bigger than her head went on to develop well and become the head nurse in my intensive care unit many years later.

The abortionist who is a principal perpetrator of these atrocities, Dr. Martin Haskell, has conceded that at least 80 percent of the partial-birth abortions he performs are entirely elective; 80 percent are elective. And he admits to over a thousands of these abortions, and that is some years ago.

We are told about some extreme cases of malformed babies as though life is only for the privileged, the planned and the perfect. Dr. James McMahon, the late Dr. James McMahon, listed nine such abortions he performed because the baby had a cleft lip.

Many other physicians who care both about the mother and the unborn child have made it clear this is never a medical necessity, but it is a convenience for the abortionist. It is a convenience for those who choose to abort late in pregnancy when it becomes difficult to dismember the unborn child in the womb.

Well, the President claims he wants to solve a problem by adding a health exception to the partial-birth abortion ban. That is spurious, as anyone who has spent 10 minutes studying the Federal law, understands. Health exceptions are so broadly construed by the court, as to make any ban utterly meaningless.

If there is no consistent commitment that has survived the twists and the turns in policy during this administration, it is an unshakable commitment to a legal regime of abortion on demand. Nothing is or will be done to make abortion rare. No legislative or regulatory act will be allowed to impede the most permissive abortion license in the democratic world.

The President would do us all a favor and make a modest contribution to the health of our democratic process if he would simply concede this obvious fact.

In his memoirs Dwight Eisenhower wrote about the loss of 1.2 million lives in World War II, and he said: "The loss of lives that might have otherwise been creatively lived scars the mind of the civilized world."

Mr. Speaker, our souls have been scarred by one and a half million abortions every year in this country. Our souls have so much scar tissue there is not room for any more.

And say, what do we mean by human dignity if we subject innocent children to brutal execution when they are almost born? We all hope and pray for death with dignity. Tell me what is dignified about a death caused by having a scissors stabbed into your neck so your brains can be sucked out.

We have had long and bitter debate in this House about assault weapons. Those scissors and that suction machine are assault weapons worse than any AK-47. One might miss with an AK-47: the doctor never misses with his assault weapon, I can assure my colleagues.

It is not just the babies that are dying for the lethal sin of being unwanted or being handicapped or malformed. We are dying, and not from the darkness, but from the cold, the coldness of self-brutalization that chills our sensibilities, deadens our conscience and allows us to think of this unspeakable act as an act of compassion.

If my colleagues vote to uphold this veto, if they vote to maintain the legality of a procedure that is revolting even to the most hardened heart, then please do not ever use the word compassion again.

A word about anesthesia. Advocates of partial-birth abortions tried to tell us the baby does not feel pain; the mother's anesthesia is transmitted to the baby. We took testimony from five of the country's top anesthesiologists, and they said it is impossible, that result will take so much anesthesia it would kill the mother.

By upholding this tragic veto, those colleagues join the network of complicity in supporting what is essentially a crime against humanity, for that little, almost born infant struggling to live is a member of the human family, and partial-birth abortion is a lethal assault against the very idea of human rights and destroys, along with a defenseless little baby, the moral foundation of our democracy because democracy is not, after all, a mere process. It assigns fundamental rights and values to each human being, the first of which is the inalienable right to life.

One of the great errors of modern politics is our foolish attempt to separate our private consciences from our public acts, and it cannot be done. At the end of the 20th century, is the crowning achievement of our democracy to treat the weak, the powerless, the unwanted as things? To be disposed of? If so, we have not elevated justice; we have disgraced it.

This is not a debate about sectarian religious doctrine nor about policy options. This is a debate about our understanding of human dignity, what does it mean to be human? Our moment in history is marked by a mortal conflict between culture of death and a culture of life, and today, here and now, we must choose sides.

I am not the least embarrassed to say that I believe one day each of us will be called upon to render an account for what we have done, and maybe more importantly, what we fail to do in our lifetime, and while I believe in a merciful God, I believe in a just God, and I would be terrified at the thought of having to explain at the final judgment why I stood unmoved while Herod's slaughter of the innocents was being reenacted here in my own country.

This debate has been about an unspeakable horror. While the details are graphic and grisly, it has been helpful for all of us to recognize the full brutality of what goes on in America's abortuaries day in and day out, week after week, year after year. We are not talking about abstractions here. We are talking about life and death at their most elemental, and we ought to face the truth of what we oppose or support stripped of all euphemisms, and the queen of all euphemisms is "choice" as though one is choosing vanilla and chocolate instead of a dead baby or a live baby.

Now, we have talked so much about the grotesque; permit me a word about beauty. We all have our own images of the beautiful; the face of a loved one, a dawn, a sunset, the evening star. I believe nothing in this world of wonders is more beautiful than the innocence of a child.

Do my colleagues know what a child is? She is an opportunity for love, and a handicapped child is an even greater opportunity for love.

Mr. Speaker, we risk our souls, we risk our humanity when we trifle with that innocence or demean it or brutalize it. We need more caring and less killing.

Let the innocence of the unborn have the last word in this debate. Let their innocence appeal to what President Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Let our votes prove Raskolnikov is wrong. There is something we will never get use to. Make it clear once again there is justice for all, even for the tiniest, most defenseless in this, our land.

Further Resources


Gold, Rebecca Benson. Abortion and Women's Health: A Turning Point for America? New York: The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1990.

Olasky, Marvin. Abortion Rights: A Social History of Abortion in America. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1995.

Tribe, Laurence H. Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990


Arkes, Hadley. "Slouching Towards Infanticide: Why a Ban on Partial-Birth Abortion Is Not Enough." The Weekly Standard, May 25, 1998, 26–29.

Wolfe, Naomi. "Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-Choice Rhetoric." The New Republic, October 16, 1995, 26–35.


National Right to Life. Available online at; website home page at (accessed April 4, 2003).

Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Available online at (accessed April 4, 2003).