Rare abortion method is new weapon in debate

June 17, 1995|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- For years, abortion rights advocates framed the debate on whether women or the government should be able decide to terminate pregnancies. Now abortion opponents are trying to shift attention to whether the procedure is so vile that it should not be done at all.

Because the Supreme Court has said the legislature cannot ban abortion outright, leaders of the new anti-abortion majority in Congress are aiming their fire at a rare, and particularly unsettling, new method used to end late-term pregnancies.

"This is a step beyond abortion on demand," said Rep. Charles T. Canady, a Florida Republican who is chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee that held a public hearing this week on legislation to ban "partial birth abortions."

"It is an inhuman act."

Anti-abortion forces in Congress are still determined to fight the battle on whether federal money can be used to pay for abortions. But now they have hit on a new strategy. Mr. Canady has sponsored legislation to make it a crime to perform "partial birth abortions," although critics say only a minuscule number of abortions fall into this category.

Using life-size charts and graphic details, Mr. Canady and his witnesses sought this week to characterize this method as a greater affront to humanity than other abortion methods.

Leaders of the abortion rights movement called the hearing a transparent tactic aimed at doing away with abortion rights entirely.

"It was sensational and inflammatory, designed to create the impression that all abortions are performed that way," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Rights Abortion League.

The hearing, she said, was also reminiscent of instances in the 1970s and early 1980s, when abortion opponents carried around aborted fetuses in jars.

"This takes us back to before 1984, when the debate was all about the procedure and about the fetus and no one ever talked about the women involved," she said.

But for those determined to restrict, if not outlaw abortions, this tactic has two apparent advantages. As a political matter, among ambivalent lawmakers and voters who favor women's rights but are moved by the graphic details, it may encourage support for limiting abortions.

"Most Americans don't even realize abortion is legal after the first trimester," said Doug Johnson, chief lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee. "We think we'll pick up support for this bill at least from Republicans who are considered 'pro-choice.' "

Perhaps even more important, this tactic puts pressure on doctors, who could be prosecuted for performing the "partial-birth" procedure. "I have to wonder what you're trying to ban with this legislation," J. Courtland Robinson, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital, told Mr. Canady. "It sounds as if you're trying to leave any later abortion open to question, to create a right of action and in fact a criminal violation, to force doctors to prove that they have now somehow violated the law."

Only two doctors in the country are known to perform the procedure, which Dr. Robinson said is virtually unheard of in mainstream medical circles. Both declined to appear at the House hearing.

As described and illustrated at the hearing, the procedure involves partially delivering the fetus feet-first. With the head still in the uterus, the doctor pokes scissors into the base of the skull and uses a catheter to remove the brain. That shrinks the head and allows for easy removal of the dead fetus, thus sparing the mother from going through labor.

"I guess I'm a Pollyanna, but I thought there wouldn't be anyone who would rise in defense of this type of procedure," said Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican from South Carolina. "I guess I'm finding out how radical the other side is. How can anyone support killing a child just inches from birth?"

A deeply moving answer came from Tammy Watts, a Santa Cruz, Calif., woman who sobbed through her tale of undergoing such an abortion. She said she had discovered seven months through her pregnancy that her fetus was hopelessly deformed, couldn't survive past birth and would likely die painfully.

"This was the best thing for her, for McKinsey," Mrs. Watts said, using the name she had picked for her daughter. "Parents have to be the ones to make that decision because we are the only ones who can." The more traditional option for Mrs. Watts, with her late-stage pregnancy, would have been a method known as "D & X," which essentially calls for dismemberment of the fetus in the uterus. But that may pose dangers for the mother.

"This is a day I have dreaded," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat and abortion rights advocate. "For Congress be dictating medical procedure, instead of allowing a woman and her doctor to choose the safest and least intrusive course, is legislating malpractice."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.