Some restrictions on abortion needed

The Senate has once again approved a ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortions. Although the vote fell three votes short of a veto-proof margin, it is clear that the center of gravity in the abortion debate has shifted, even if only slightly. President Clinton has already promised to veto the ban for the second year in a row. But it is evident that after more than two decades of expansive abortion rights under Roe vs. Wade, many Americans are expressing reservations, and the nation’s leaders are listening.
The specific procedure at issue is known technically as intact dilation and extraction. The practice is most often used to abort fetuses after 20 weeks of pregnancy, even when the potential child is capable of life outside the womb. It requires doctors to begin delivery for a living fetus, legs first, while leaving the head in the birth canal. The skull is then pierced and the brain sucked out. A dead fetus is delivered. Most Americans agree that such abhorrent procedures should be outlawed, unless the life of the mother is at stake.
Before the Senate passed the ban last Tuesday, President Clinton said he would support an alternative proposal prohibiting abortions after the fetus becomes viable. That proposal, initiated by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., did not include the typical catch-all exception permitting termination of the pregnancy if a woman’s doctor deems it necessary to protect the mother’s health. Daschle narrowed the exception to cases threatening death or “grievous physical injury” to the woman.The proposal’s significance stems not only from the support it has received from the president, but also from the turnabout it marks for its author. Daschle, a staunch pro-choice advocate who boasts a 100 percent approval rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League, opposed a partial-birth ban last year. Although the Senate quickly rejected Daschle’s proposal, the measure represents a long-overdue acknowledgement from pro-choice leaders that a majority of Americans believe there should be some restrictions on how late abortions can be performed.The Senate-approved bill is more restrictive than Daschle’s proposal. It does not grant doctors any leeway to perform abortions once the fetus is viable, except to save the life of the mother. After his proposal was defeated, Daschle unexpectedly voted for the stricter version of the ban. He insists he only did so with the hope that Clinton would sign it into law, and the courts could then declare it unconstitutional. But Daschle is up for re-election next year and South Dakota is one of 10 states that have enacted their own partial-birth abortion restrictions. Like other traditionally pro-choice lawmakers who supported the ban this year, he is obviously staking out a more moderate position.
Clinton, no doubt, will veto the ban, despite the measure’s endorsement from the American Medical Association. Public revulsion over partial-birth procedures is, however, on the rise. The Senate will surely revisit the issue again next session. A reasonable compromise seems possible for the first time in more than 20 years. The life of the mother and a woman’s right to choose should always serve as principal considerations. But unless the mother’s life is severely threatened, an unborn child capable of surviving outside the womb ought to come first.