If the United States really wishes to protect vulnerable new lives from some very rare acts of wanton destruction, there are reasonable ways to do that. Wednesday's ruling of the Supreme Court, and the abortion-limiting law that it upheld, are not among them.
Claiming to respect human life in all its forms, the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling upholding it in fact show a stunning disrespect for the lives of American women and their ability, acting under a doctor's care, to decide for themselves which medical procedures are necessary and proper.
The basis for both, implicit in the statute and explicit in Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion, is that women are such dithery and tender flowers that it requires an act of Congress to stop them from taking an action that they may come to regret, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of their lives.
The understandable concern of many Americans, even the majority who generally favor a woman's right to choose, is that someone will abuse that right by slothfully waiting until a medically uneventful pregnancy is well along before suddenly taking it into her head that she doesn't wish to bear this child. Were that the only reason for abortions, then the admittedly gruesome procedure of pulling an intact fetus out of the woman's birth canal, then puncturing the skull so it shrinks enough to allow it to pass out as well, might justify not merely limits, but an outright ban. The facts, however, do not fit the theory.
For one thing, the law's attack on such an imagined libertine is much more likely to strike the few real women -- maybe 2,000 a year -- who painfully choose this form of late-term abortion for reasons of medical necessity or fatal fetal deformity. For another, the law does nothing to limit another late-term abortion procedure in which the fetus is dismembered while still in the uterus.
Thus a method sometimes favored by the medical profession as being less threatening to the health of the woman has been banned in favor of one that is known to be more prone to causing injury and infection to the woman's body. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg pointed out in her on-target dissent, the law is unlikely to prevent the destruction of a single fetus. It merely demands that it be destroyed in a way that is more, rather than less, risky to the woman.
A ban that respected the traditional exception for actions taken to safeguard the health -- not only the life -- of the woman, a law that required a more detailed informed consent process or concurrence of outside physicians that the process to be used was medically proper in each case, would have done much more to prevent any woman, if there is such a woman, from choosing what is clearly a disquieting procedure for reasons of mere convenience or moodiness.
The fact that Congress, the president and, now, a bare majority of the Supreme Court favor a more punitive, mistrustful approach is a giant step backward in the long journey of women to be legally treated as full human beings.