Human Nature

Disability Fraud

Did Rick Santorum lie through his teeth about partial-birth abortion?

Rick Santorum at the signing of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act, November 2003

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sunday on Face the Nation, Rick Santorum was asked whether, in recent remarks, he’s been deliberately suggesting that President Obama “looks down on disabled people.” Santorum replied: “Well, the president supported partial-birth abortion, and partial-birth abortion is a procedure used almost exclusively to kill children late in pregnancy when they’ve been found out to be disabled.”

That’s odd. Because for nine years, while he was promoting the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in the U.S. Senate, Santorum said exactly the opposite. He said partial-birth abortion was used almost exclusively to kill children who weren’t disabled. And he said anyone who implied otherwise was a liar.

Santorum became a U.S. senator in January 1995. In September 1995, he delivered his first Senate floor speech on partial-birth abortion. Based on information he had heard at the time, he said that “of the two doctors who performed the majority of these abortions, half of the babies who were [aborted] were perfectly healthy.”

A year later, in September 1996, Santorum boosted that number. He cited a report that had just come out in the Bergen Record, which quoted a doctor at a northern New Jersey clinic saying, “We have an occasional amnio-abnormality, but it’s a minuscule amount.” On the Senate floor, Santorum took the paper’s paraphrase of that remark out of context: “Doctors say only a ‘minuscule amount’ are for medical reasons.” The next day, Santorum converted this into a national statistic, telling his colleagues that partial-birth abortion “is performed in this country thousands of times and in many, many cases, as I quoted yesterday from the doctors in the Bergen County Record, in most cases on healthy babies, healthy pregnancies, and healthy women who had no problem with their pregnancy but was purely elective.”

In truth, data on partial-birth abortion were grossly unreliable. No government agency tracked the number of procedures. Nobody could even agree on what a “partial-birth abortion” was, since no doctor used that term. There were scattered reports from a few doctors, but nobody was sure who else might be performing abortions that fell under the congressional definition or what percentage of abortions among the unknown practitioners was elective. Inferring national data from the few doctors who spoke up was like inferring national election results from returns in four or five counties.

Then Santorum hit the jackpot. In February 1997, Ron Fitzsimmons, the executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, told American Medical News that partial-birth abortion was performed far more often than pro-choice groups had admitted. The News reported:

What abortion rights supporters failed to acknowledge, Fitzsimmons said, is that the vast majority of these abortions are performed in the 20-plus week range on healthy fetuses and healthy mothers. “The abortion rights folks know it, the anti-abortion folks know it, and so, probably, does everyone else,” he said. He knows it, he says, because when the bill to ban it came down the pike, he called around until he found doctors who did them.
“I learned right away that this was being done for the most part in cases that did not involve those extreme circumstances,” he said. … “When you’re a doctor who does these abortions and the leaders of your movement appear before Congress and go on network news and say these procedures are done in only the most tragic of circumstances, how do you think it makes you feel? You know they’re primarily done on healthy women and healthy fetuses, and it makes you feel like a dirty little abortionist with a dirty little secret.”

Fitzsimmons’ color quotes were devastating. He told the News he had once “lied through my teeth” in a TV interview about partial-birth abortion, though that part of the interview had never aired. The “teeth” quote, plus the phrase “dirty little secret,” made Fitzsimmons an instant poster boy for pro-choice deception. But beneath the damning quotes, where were the data? The phrase “vast majority” appeared in the article as paraphrase but never in quotes. (I’m one of the journalists who were suckered twice: first by the pro-choice spin that the procedure was rarely elective, and then by the “vast majority” paraphrase.) What Fitzsimmons actually said was “for the most part” and primarily.” What exactly did that mean? How many clinics had Fitzsimmons called? Which ones he had spoken to? He never explained.

That didn’t stop Santorum from converting Fitzsimmons’ confession into numbers. In March 1997, Santorum declared on the Senate floor that Fitzsimmons

called up the doctors of the clinics, and the doctors said, “No. We perform this fairly routinely,” not just on third trimester babies, and some are, but the vast majority—95 percent is my guess, or even more—are on healthy mothers with healthy babies in the fifth and sixth months of pregnancy. Those are the facts.

Facts? These weren’t facts. These were Santorum’s misquotations and guesses. Two weeks later, Santorum told his colleagues that “at least 90 percent of [partial-birth abortions], according to their industry, are healthy babies and healthy mothers.” By May 1997, Santorum was claiming that the procedure was used on “healthy babies … in almost all cases.”

Over the years, Santorum’s number crept upward. In October 1999, he told his colleagues that “according to the people who perform them, well over 90 percent of the partial-birth abortions that are performed—and some have suggested much higher than 90 percent—[are] on healthy babies and healthy mothers.” In March 2003, he put the figure at 99 percent. In September 2003, he repeated that the baby aborted by the procedure “in 99 percent of the cases is healthy.”

Santorum didn’t just trumpet these numbers. He called anyone who disputed them dishonest. Thirty-one times, he used the word “lie” (19 times quoting Fitzsimmons, plus another 12 times on his own) to describe pro-choice claims about the use of partial-birth abortion for cases of fetal abnormality or maternal health risk. Santorum also accused his opponents of “misleading,” “misinforming,” and “disinforming” the public.

Santorum’s campaign succeeded. Congress passed the Partial Birth Abortion Act in October 2003. President Bush signed it, and the Supreme Court upheld it. But now Santorum has a new mission. He wants to tar President Obama as a persecutor of the disabled. Here’s what Santorum said in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday:

One of the things that you don’t know about Obamacare and one of the mandates is they require free prenatal testing in every insurance policy in America. Why? Because it saves money in health care. Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and therefore less care that has to be done because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society. That, too, is part of Obamacare: another hidden message as to what President Obama thinks of those who are less able than the elites who want to govern our country.

This comment is what led Bob Schieffer to ask Santorum on Sunday: “You’re not saying that the cause of this, that the president looks down on disabled people, are you?” And that’s when Santorum, instead of answering “no,” brought up partial-birth abortion to support his indictment: “Partial-birth abortion is a procedure used almost exclusively to kill children … when they’ve been found out to be disabled.”

That’s a direct repudiation of the claim that Santorum repeated on the Senate floor for nine years, on the basis of which the U.S. government outlawed an abortion procedure. The question Santorum should answer now is: Senator, if Ron Fitzsimmons is a liar, what are you?

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: