WASHINGTON -- President Clinton yesterday vetoed a bill that would outlaw late-term "partial birth" abortions, insisting that the controversial procedure is "potentially lifesaving" and "certainly health-saving" for the women who choose it.
"I understand the desire to eliminate the use of a procedure that appears inhumane," the president said in his veto statement. "But to eliminate it without taking into consideration the rare and tragic circumstances in which its use may be necessary would be even more inhumane."
Estimates vary on the prevalence of the procedure -- and its reasons. Opponents say it occurs as often as 13,000 times a year; abortion-rights advocates say it happens as rarely as 500 times a year, usually to preserve the mother's life or health.
There is little dispute, however, about the gruesome nature of the procedure, which entails pulling a late-term fetus by its legs from the birth canal, where it is killed by having scissors inserted into the skull.
The president's veto, which opponents in Congress do not appear to have the votes to override, ensured that abortion will be a campaign issue in 1996.
Yesterday's decision appeased abortion-rights leaders but infuriated abortion foes, who reminded the president of his 1992 pledge to work to make abortion "safe, legal and rare."
"It will be very hard, if not impossible, for Bill Clinton to look Roman Catholic and evangelical voters in the eye and ask for their support in November," said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition.
Ten days ago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago wrote the president imploring him not to oppose the bill, adding that a veto would "send a very disturbing message to the people of this nation, one to which persons of good will must give serious consideration as they cast their ballots in November."
Mr. Clinton has clearly been troubled by the issue -- he told Cardinal Bernardin he has "studied and prayed" about it -- and his political advisers have fretted because he was forced to deal with it in an election year.
"This is not about the pro-choice, pro-life debate," Mr. Clinton said. "This is not a bill that should have ever been injected into that."
One of the few things on which activists on both sides agree is that the fight against partial-birth abortions is a clear attempt to chip away at the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteeing a woman the right to terminate a pregnancy.
"It's the most serious threat to reproductive rights, with a very narrow life exception, and it's a direct challenge to Roe vs. Wade," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights League.
Douglas Johnson, the official with the National Right to Life Committee most responsible for elevating the issue of partial-birth abortions, does not hide the fact that he saw this issue as a way to educate Americans about abortion, a procedure he considers inherently violent.
In the case of partial-birth abortions, even some abortion rights supporters agree with him.
The technique "blurs the line between abortion and infanticide," said Mr. Clinton's likely Republican presidential rival, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
Sensitive to such criticism, the president was accompanied to ,, the Roosevelt Room yesterday by five mothers who have used the procedure.
All are women who have other children. All are religious. All underwent a partial-birth abortion because their fetuses were severely damaged and certain to die. All were told by doctors that continuing the pregnancy to term would have jeopardized the mother's health or life.
"I didn't make the decision for my child to die; God made the decision," said Vikki Stella of Naperville, Ill.
Doctors said her unborn son's cranium was filled with fluid and no brain tissue.
Mr. Johnson, who is familiar with these mothers, said they were "atypical." More often, he said, a woman will simply decide to have an "elective" abortion late in her pregnancy.
Hoping to avert a veto, the president tried to persuade abortion opponents to substitute language allowing an exception in cases involving threats to the "health" of the mother.
But abortion foes rejected this, saying that in the past such wording created a huge loophole.
Health includes "mental health," and as a practical matter a woman who tells a psychologist that having a baby will depress her may qualify, they said.
Pub Date: 4/11/96