Legislating medical practice Anti-abortion measure: Prohibition on late-term technique sets a dangerous precedent.

April 06, 1996

YOU DON'T have to be a full-fledged abortion opponent to have qualms about the "partial-birth" late-term abortion method outlawed by a bill approved recently by Congress. Neither do you have to be a no-holds-barred supporter of abortion rights to have problems with this latest ploy by anti-abortion activists.

Proponents of the bill have been clear about their political goal of using understandable revulsion at the description of the procedure to brand any opponents of the ban as extremists in their support of abortion. Rep. Christopher Smith, R., N.J., one of the House's most stalwart anti-abortion activists, made that point clear when he said, "If the president vetoes this bill, then he and he alone empowers the abortionists to kill babies in this way."

Not only does this tactic inject more hostility into the already tense abortion debate, it thwarts discussion about another important aspect of this bill. Most alarming about this measure is not necessarily the precedent of the first limitation placed by Congress on abortion procedures, but rather the more sweeping precedent of passing legislation that second-guesses the judgment of physicians by outlawing a specific medical technique.

There is disagreement about the extent to which the partial-birth abortion method is used, but according to the National Abortion Federation, only two physicians in the country say it is their preferred method for late-term abortions. That, however, does not lessen the technique's usefulness as a political weapon.

President Clinton now has to decide whether to veto the measure. He had asked for an exemption that would allow the procedure to be used in cases where it was necessary to preserve the life and health of the mother. Congress agreed only to an exception to save the life of the mother.

For the president, who says he has prayed and wrestled with the issue, this may not be an easy decision. But a veto, urged by advisers, will not necessarily hurt him as much as anti-abortion activists might hope. Choice in reproductive matters is a powerful issue for many voters. So is freedom from political meddling in the practice of medicine. On both counts, President Clinton could gain from a veto at least as much as he might lose.

Pub Date: 4/06/96

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