Medical decisions should be left to woman and doctor

On Oct. 21, the Senate passed the first abortion ban since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion 30 years ago. The House approved the ban three weeks before the Senate vote, and President George W. Bush has pledged to sign it. The Republicans have worked for this day since winning control of the House in 1995, even though the bill is likely to be overturned by the Supreme Court.

The bill is as much about keeping the abortion debate in the political realm as it is about actually passing an abortion ban. If Congress really wanted to lower the occurrence of abortions, they would devote energy and time to promoting the use of birth control to prevent pregnancies, reforming the adoption system, educating and teaching parenting skills to disadvantaged parents, and providing more job training, instead of spending years on a political debate.

Former President Bill Clinton vetoed two earlier versions of the bill in ’96 and ’97. Late-term abortion bans have been rejected by state and federal courts (including the Supreme Court) 21 times since the passage of Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court overturned a Nebraska law banning the same type of abortion procedure in 2000 because it didn’t include an exemption for women who might need the procedure for health reasons. While the congressional ban does include an exemption if the procedure must be done to save a woman’s life, it fails to include an exemption that would cover health-threatening reasons that aren’t necessarily life-threatening.

The bill could also be overturned on grounds of vagueness. The bill makes it illegal for anyone to deliver a fetus for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus, but it never once mentions the medical term “dilation and extraction” for what abortion opponents call “partial-birth abortion.” Thus, the bill is a case of Congress playing doctor.

Anti-abortion activists see the passage of this bill as proof of their political power and hope a Bush-Cheney victory in 2004 will mean a shift in the makeup of the Supreme Court by the time this ban goes before it. Examples of anti-abortion politics gaining acceptance in the mainstream can be seen in the media coverage of the ban. An Associated Press article published by The Minnesota Daily used the anti-abortion term for the procedure, “partial-birth abortion,” in the headline, led with an anti-abortion quote and used the anti-abortion description of the procedure.

An article in The New York Times on Oct. 22 tried to be more objective by using both the anti-abortion term and the medical term, “dilation and extraction,” in the same paragraph, as did a Star Tribune article from the same day. These examples highlight the difficulties reporters face in trying to cover an issue that has become so politicized. They have no choice but to use the jargon of one side or the other.

A January USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll showed 70 percent of Americans back a ban on “partial-birth abortion,” but I doubt 70 percent of respondents know exactly what procedure that term refers to. If something is given a name implies a fetus is being delivered only to be killed, of course the reader will conclude that the procedure is wrong.

In medical terms, “dilation and extraction” refers to a procedure that occurs in the second trimester or later. A women’s cervix is partially dilated and the skull of the fetus is collapsed so that the fetus can be removed without having to dilate the cervix all the way. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, estimates about 2,200 of the 1.3 million abortions performed yearly in the United States are “dilation and extraction” procedures.

It is not a pleasant procedure, no matter what side you’re on. The term “partial-birth abortion” places the fetus before the rights of the woman by implying a fetus can be “born” before it is able to live outside of the womb on its own, and the term “dilation and extraction” excludes the human cost of having this type of abortion done. The reasons a woman has a late-term abortion are much more complex than simply not being able to make up her mind. They include not realizing she was pregnant, abandonment by a boyfriend or spouse, loss of a job and means of supporting a child, or discovering the fetus is deformed or nonviable in some way that would cause it to be a stillborn if the pregnancy were carried to term.

It is ludicrous to assume a woman would choose to undergo this procedure unless it were absolutely necessary, but by not including an exemption for the health of the woman and using medically vague wording, that is exactly what this bill assumes. Congress should leave medical decisions up to a woman and her physician and focus on supporting family planning, educational and economic infrastructure necessary for giving this country a true “culture of life,” instead of a culture in which the rich and self-righteous get to make decisions for everyone else.

R.R.S. Stewart’s column appears alternate Wednesdays. She welcomes comments at [email protected]