WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, in vetoing the bill that would ban what abortion foes call ''partial-birth'' abortions, insisted that ''this is not about the pro-choice, pro-life debate'' and ''not a bill that should have ever been injected into that.'' He should have been so lucky.
Given the degree to which abortion has been politicized before and ever since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing a women's right to have an abortion, it was inevitable that this bill would be seized upon by the anti-abortion forces to dramatize their side of the argument.
The procedure whereby a fetus is partly extracted by its feet and the brain then suctioned out to permit removal of the remainder is particularly gruesome, and hence is a particularly powerful ''Exhibit A'' for foes of abortion. The president in announcing his veto said ''just a few hundred [women] a year'' agree to have the procedure, a contention that is vehemently challenged by abortion foes.
Mr. Clinton said he would have signed the bill had it included an exception for cases in which the life or health of the mother was clearly in peril, and he produced at the White House five women who had undergone the procedure in the face of such risk. Each said their fetuses were severely damaged and faced certain death if taken to delivery.
But the most fervent anti-abortion forces reject any such exception. Many want an absolute ban on all abortions, and others argue that that ''health of the mother'' is too broad a caveat that easily could become a license for abortion, depending on the assessment of the doctor.
On the abortion-rights side, this bill has been viewed as an attempt to pry open a crack in the door toward eroding Roe v. Wade. No amount of emotional pleading or explanations of the grim procedure with accompanying illustrations is going to change the minds of most defenders of the 1973 Supreme Court decision.
For his trouble in trying to find an acceptable compromise through the ''life or health of the mother'' exception, President Clinton is likely to reap only more criticism from both sides. Although poll after poll has underscored that a strong majority of Americans support abortion rights to one degree or another, the president's position in harmony with that view does not shield him from considerable political peril on the issue.
Look Christians in the eye
Christian leaders have been particularly direct in pointing out this fact to him. Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition warned that it would be ''very hard if not impossible'' for Mr. Clinton to look Christian ''voters in the eye and ask for their support in November.'' And Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago wrote him recently that a veto would ''send a very disturbing message'' to voters ''as they cast their ballots in November.'' The Roman Catholic vote, traditionally Democratic but increasingly trending Republican, will be an especially critical one for Mr. Clinton this year.
Also, abortion is one clear-cut defining issue between the president and his prospective Republican opponent, Bob Dole, who quickly said the procedure ''blurs the line between abortion and infanticide and crosses an ethical and legal line'' where Mr. Clinton stands ''on the wrong side.'' The president can expect that the anti-abortion placards of past campaigns proclaiming that ''Abortion is Murder'' will be in view again this fall, very likely with sketches of the ''partial birth'' procedure as well. But such campaigns have failed to stem the growth of the abortion-rights movement, especially among women voters, who as a group are among President Clinton's strongest supporters. Also, extremism in the anti-abortion crusade, most notably demonstrated in the slaying of doctors outside abortion clinics, has severely undermined the efforts of abortion foes.
In the already highly politicized debate over abortion, the president in the end had little choice, once his plea for an exception was rejected, but to take the political position he did -- cast the veto, with clearly expressed regret.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 4/12/96