REPLAY:A Classic Debate on Partial-Birth Abortion

Chris Field is on vacation. When he returns, so shall his daily First Look. This post originally appeared on July 16, 2003.

In my First Look space yesterday I brought up the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. This reminded me of one of the coolest debates I had the privilege of witnessing during my time on Capitol Hill.

In October of 1999, Sen. Rick Santorum (R.-Pa.) was on the Senate floor expounding the virtues of and need for a ban on partial-birth abortion. What follows is the verbal fisticuffs between Senators Santorum and Boxer that developed when Sen. Santorum just wanted an answer to the question of when a baby is “born.”

Mr. SANTORUM: . . .I think the Senator from California would say that she and I, the Senator from Illinois, the Senators from Arkansas and Kansas, we are all protected by the Constitution with the right to life.

Would you agree with that, Senator from California? Do you answer that question?

Mrs. BOXER: I support the Roe v. Wade decision.

Mr. SANTORUM: Do you agree any child who is born has the right to life, is protected by the Constitution once that child is born?

Mrs. BOXER: I agree with the Roe v. Wade decision, and what you are doing goes against it and will harm the women of this country. And I will address that when I get the floor.

Mr. SANTORUM: But I would like to ask you this question. You agree, once the child is born, separated from the mother, that that child is protected by the Constitution and cannot be killed? Do you agree with that?

Mrs. BOXER: I would make this statement. That this Constitution as it currently is–some want to amend it to say life begins at conception. I think when you bring your baby home, when your baby is born–and there is no such thing as partial-birth–the baby belongs to your family and has the rights. But I am not willing to amend the Constitution to say that a fetus is a person, which I know you would. But we will get to that later. . . .

I think what my friend is doing, by asking me these questions, is off point. My friend wants to tell the doctors in this country what to do. My friend from Pennsylvania says they are rogue doctors. The AMA will tell you they no longer support the bill. The American Nurses don’t support the bill. The obstetricians and gynecologists don’t support the bill. So my friend can ask me my philosophy all day; on my own time I will talk about it.

Mr. SANTORUM: If I may reclaim my time, first of all, the AMA still believes this is bad medicine. They do not support the criminal penalties provisions in this bill, but they still believe–I think you know that to be the case–this procedure is not medically necessary, and they stand by that statement.

I ask the Senator from California, again, you believe–you said “once the baby comes home.” 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 baby is entitled to constitutional protection?

Mrs. BOXER: I will tell you why I don’t want to engage in this. You had the same conversation with a colleague of mine, and I never saw such a twisting of his remarks.

Mr. SANTORUM: Let me be clear, then. Let’s try to be clear.

Mrs. BOXER: I am going to be clear when I get the floor. What you are trying to do is take away the rights of women and their families and their doctors to have a procedure. And now you are trying to turn the question into, When does life begin? I will talk about that on my own time.

[. . .]

Mr. SANTORUM: Once the baby is born, is completely separated from the mother, you will support that that baby has, in fact, the right to life and cannot be killed? You accept that; right?

Mrs. BOXER: I don’t believe in killing any human being. That is absolutely correct. Nor do you, I am sure.

Mr. SANTORUM: So you would accept the fact that once the baby is separated from the mother, that baby cannot be killed?

[. . .]

Mrs. BOXER: Define “separation.” You answer that question.

Mr. SANTORUM: Let’s define that. Let’s say the baby is completely separated; in other words, no part of the baby is inside the mother.

Mrs. BOXER: You mean the baby has been birthed and is now in the mother’s arms? It is a human being? It takes a second, it takes a minute—-

Mr. SANTORUM: Say it is in the obstetrician’s hands.

Mrs. BOXER: I had two babies, and within seconds of them being born—-

Mr. SANTORUM: We had six.

Mrs. BOXER: You didn’t have any.

Mr. SANTORUM: My wife and I did. We do things together in my family.

Mrs. BOXER: Your wife gave birth. I gave birth. I can tell you, I know when the baby was born.

Mr. SANTORUM: Good. All I am asking you is, once the baby leaves the mother’s birth canal and is through the vaginal orifice and is in the hands of the obstetrician, you would agree you cannot then abort the baby?

Mrs. BOXER: I would say when the baby is born, the baby is born and would then have every right of every other human being living in this country, and I don’t know why this would even be a question.

Mr. SANTORUM: Because we are talking about a situation here where the baby is almost born. So I ask the question of the Senator from California, if the baby was born except for the baby’s foot, if the baby’s foot was inside the mother but the rest of the baby was outside, could that baby be killed?

Mrs. BOXER: The baby is born when the baby is born.

Mr. DURBIN: Will the Senator yield?

Mrs. BOXER: That is the answer to the question.

Mr. SANTORUM: I am asking for you to define for me what that is.

Mrs. BOXER: I can’t believe the Senator from Pennsylvania has a question with it. I have never been troubled by this question. You give birth to a baby. The baby is there, and it is born, and that is my answer to the question.

Mr. SANTORUM: What we are talking about here with partial birth, as the Senator from California knows, is the baby is in the process of being born—-

Mrs. BOXER: In the process of being born. This is why this conversation makes no sense, because to me it is obvious when a baby is born; to you it isn’t obvious.

Mr. SANTORUM: Maybe you can make it obvious to me. What you are suggesting is if the baby’s foot is still inside of the mother, that baby can then still be killed.

Mrs. BOXER: I am not suggesting that.

Mr. SANTORUM: I am asking.

Mrs. BOXER: I am absolutely not suggesting that. You asked me a question, in essence, when the baby is born.

Mr. SANTORUM: I am asking you again. Can you answer that?

Mrs. BOXER: I will answer the question when the baby is born. The baby is born when the baby is outside the mother’s body. The baby is born.

Mr. SANTORUM: I am not going to put words in your mouth—-

Mrs. BOXER: I hope not.

Mr. SANTORUM: But, again, what you are suggesting is if the baby’s toe is inside the mother, you can, in fact, kill that baby.

Mrs. BOXER: Absolutely not.

Mr. SANTORUM: OK. So if the baby’s toe is in, you can’t kill the baby. How about if the baby’s foot is in?

Mrs. BOXER: You are the one who is making these statements.

Mr. SANTORUM: We are trying to draw a line here.

Mrs. BOXER: I am not answering these questions.

Mr. SANTORUM: If the head is inside the mother, you can kill the baby.

Mrs. BOXER: My friend is losing his temper. Let me say to my friend once again–and he is laughing—-

Mr. SANTORUM: I am not laughing.

Mrs. BOXER: Let me say, this woman is not laughing right now because if this bill was the law of the land, she might either be dead or infertile. So if the Senator wants to laugh about this, he can laugh all he wants.

Mr. SANTORUM: Reclaiming my time, Mr. President. All I suggest is I was not laughing about the discussions. It is a very serious discussion.

Mrs. BOXER: Well, you were.

Mr. SANTORUM: I was smiling at your characterization of my demeanor. I have not lost my temper. I think I am, frankly, very composed at this point. What I will say–and the Senator is walking away–is the Senator said, again, the baby is born when the baby is born. I said: If the foot is still inside the mother? She said: Well, no, you can’t kill the baby. If the foot is inside, you can’t, but if the head is the only thing inside, you can.

Here is the line. See this is where it gets a little funny.

Mrs. BOXER: Parliamentary inquiry, Mr. President. Let the RECORD show that I did not say what the Senator from Pennsylvania said that I did. Thank you.

Mr. SANTORUM: Mr. President, I hate to do this, but could we have the clerk read back what the Senator from California said with respect to that question?

I understand it will take some time for us to do that. I will be happy–

Mrs. BOXER: I say to my friend, I know what I said. I am saying your characterization of what I said is incorrect. I didn’t talk about the head or the foot. That was what my colleague talked about. And I don’t appreciate it being misquoted on the floor over a subject that involves the health and life of the women of this country and the children of this country and the families of this country.

Mr. SANTORUM: It also involves–and that is the point I think the Senator from California is missing–it also involves when in the process–that is why people on both sides of the abortion issue support this bill, because it also involves what is infanticide and what is not. A lot of people who agree with you on the issue of abortion say this is too close to infanticide. This is a baby who is outside the mother. . .



  • Santorum/Boxer Debate, Congressional Record, pages S12877-S12880, October 20, 1999
  • First Look: The Truly Important Lines from the State of the Union Were Not about Iraq
  • U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee Legislative Notice: S. 3, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003
  • Text of S. 3, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, as passed by the Senate
  • Roll Calls: Senate Votes on Abortion, Estrada
  • Text of H.R. 760/S. 3, as agreed to by the House
  • Roll Calls: House Votes Against Partial-Birth and Military Abortions