Abortion Methods: D&X Abortion (Partial-Birth Abortion)

Dilation & Extraction (D&X), also known as Partial-Birth Abortion or Intact D&E or Intact D&X

What is a Dilation & Extraction Abortion?

From the law banning dilation & extraction abortions in 2003,  the legal definition of a D&X abortion is: “the person performing the abortion deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the [mother’s] body . . . , for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus; and performs the overt act, other than completion of delivery, that kills the fetus.” [1]

History of D&X Abortion

Independently of each other, Dr Martin Haskell, an abortion doctor from Ohio, and another abortion doctor in California started performing intact D&Xs on some women more than 16 weeks pregnant in the early 1990s. In 1992, Dr Martin Haskell presented a paper on intact D&Xs at a medical conference of the National Abortion Federation. Intact D&X abortions theoretically would have decreased complication rates because an intact delivery of the dead fetus would mean less likelihood of retained fetal body parts and tissue. Also, delivering the dead fetus aborted because of a medical anomaly (something wrong with the fetus potentially preventing it from living long or at all outside the womb) whole as opposed to in parts could potentially make for a better autopsy. Finally, delivering the dead baby whole could give his or her parents the opportunity to hold him/her rather than the body being in pieces. [2]

Court Cases

In 1997, Nebraska banned intact D&X abortions, which Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy later called “a procedure many decent and civilized people find so abhorrent as to be among the most serious of crimes against human life.”[3]

In 2000, Stenberg vs Carhart, the Supreme Court struck down Nebraska’s ban on intact D&X abortions. Stenberg vs Carhart said that the ban was invalid because, among other reasons, it did not include an exception to allow for the life of the mother.  Partial birth abortion was later made illegal throughout the entire United States by a Supreme Court decision in 2003. In that ruling, the Supreme Court determined that an intact D&X abortion “is a gruesome and inhumane procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited.” [4]

Two court cases, Carhart vs Ashcroft in 2003 and Planned Parenthood Federation of America vs Ashcroft in 2004, challenged this court ruling. In 2007, Gonzalez vs Carhart, the Supreme Court upheld the 2003 ban on intact D&X. [5] 

What percentage of Abortions are D&X Abortions?

Less than 0.5& of all abortions were estimated by Alan Guttmacher Institute (in 2006) to be D&X abortions. Now that this type of abortion is illegal, numbers are no longer tracked. However, video footage obtained during an undercover investigation by the Center for Medical Progress suggests that at least some Planned Parenthood affiliates may still be doing D&X abortions. The purpose of doing these D&X abortions would be to get intact fetal specimens for body part harvesting and sale. In the video, Dr Suzie Prabhakaran, an abortion doctor and Planned Parenthood medical director, described “checking a box” on abortion documentation to say that the doctor intended to use dismemberment, also known as the D&E (dilation & evacuation) method. If the fetus were actually aborted by D&X, the law would not technically be broken because the documented intent was to abort by dismemberment. [6]

Previously, another abortion doctor and Planned Parenthood executive named Dr Deborah Nucatola was recorded speaking about D&X abortions happening in Planned Parenthood clinics. She stated: “The Federal [Partial-Birth] Abortion Ban is a law, and laws are up to interpretation. So there are some people who interpret it as it’s intent. So if I say on Day 1 I do not intend to do this, what ultimately happens doesn’t matter.” [7]

What happens during a D&X Abortion?


The “d” in D&X stands for “dilation,” and this starts one or more days before the abortion. The cervix typically has to be dilated more than with suction or D&C abortions because the baby is bigger. Oftentimes osmotic cervical dilators called laminaria start the process. Laminaria are long, thin rods of sterilized seaweed, and they soak up the amniotic fluid. This stretches and opens the cervix. Sometimes synthetic osmotic cervical dilators like Dilapan-S may be used instead. On the day of the abortion, Misoprostol, the early abortion pill, is often given to increase the dilation. If needed, surgical instruments may be used to manually stretch and open the cervix.


After the cervix is adequately dilated, the abortion doctor pulls the baby feet first (this is called a breech presentation) until only its head remained inside. Then, the doctor punctures the head or back of the neck with sharp surgical scissors or a trochar, a hard, pointed metal tool. Then, they suction the fetus’ brain tissue out into a catheter which collapses the skull. The fetus is then delivered the rest of the way. [8]


From testimony by a nurse for abortion provider Dr Martin Haskell, given during 2007 court case:

“Dr. Haskell went in with forceps and grabbed the baby’s legs and pulled them down into the birth canal. Then he delivered the baby’s body and the arms, everything but the head. The doctor kept the head right inside the uterus. . . . The baby’s little fingers were clasping and unclasping, and his little feet were kicking. Then the doctor stuck the scissors in the back of his head, and the baby’s arms jerked out, like a startle reaction, like a flinch, like a baby does when he thinks he is going to fall. The doctor opened up the scissors, stuck a high powered suction tube into the opening, and sucked the baby’s brains out. Now the baby went completely limp. . . . He cut the umbilical cord and delivered the placenta. He threw the baby in a pan, along with the placenta and the instruments he had just used. [9]

Variations on this procedure include: crushing the fetal skull with forceps, squeezing the fetal skull until the brain tissue oozes out and the skull collapses, or twisting the fetal head until it comes off of the rest of the body (decapitating it). [10]

At what point does the fetus die during the Abortion?

Typically, the fetus dies when the skull is pierced and the brain tissue is suctioned out.

What are the side effects of a D&X Abortion?

D&X abortion has the same general risks as any other surgical method of second trimester abortion. These include:

  • Non-white women undergoing surgical abortion are more than twice as likely as white women to die from the procedure
  • Obese women undergoing surgical abortions are more likely to have greater blood loss and increased procedure time
  • Retained fetal tissue, placenta, or amniotic sac can lead to life-threatening infection
  • Hematometra (abnormal collection of blood in the uterine cavity)
  • Bleeding severe enough to require a blood transfusion
  • Uterine atony (failure of the uterus to contract after abortion, causing uncontrolled bleeding)
  • Disseminated intravascular coagulopathy (life-threatening blood clotting and bleeding disorder)
  • Infection (may require hospitalization)
  • Cervical injury
  • Uterine perforation (hole punctured in the uterine wall)
  • Asherman syndrome (scarring of the uterine lining or in the cervical canal potentially causing infertility, miscarriage, or preterm delivery in future pregnancies)
  • Deep vein thrombosis (potentially life-threatening blood clot, usually in legs)
  • Pulmonary embolism (life-threatening blood clot in one or both lungs)
  • Amniotic fluid embolism (amniotic fluid from fetal amniotic sac enters the mother’s blood stream)[11]

How often do Complications occur?

Between 1 and 2 of every 100 women who have a second trimester intact D&X abortion could expect to experience one or more of the serious complications listed above. [12]


[2]Cassing Hammond MD, and Stephen Chasen MD, “Dilation and Evacuation,” Management of Unintended and Abnormal Pregnancy. Ed. Paul, Lichtenberg, Borgatta, Grimes, Stubblefield and Creinin. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) 193.

[11] Cassing Hammond MD, and Stephen Chasen MD, “Dilation and Evacuation,” Management of Unintended and Abnormal Pregnancy. Ed. Paul, Lichtenberg, Borgatta, Grimes, Stubblefield and Creinin. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 244-264.

[12] Ibid.