Bill to ban late-stage abortions debated Backers, foes on hand as hearings begin

February 26, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Anti-abortion and abortion-rights forces squared off in Annapolis yesterday over a bill that proponents say would ban a form of "infanticide" but that foes call a smoke screen for an attempt to ban all abortions in Maryland.

The abortion issue, relatively dormant since last year, arose as the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee began hearings on legislation that would prohibit "partial-birth abortions," a term the bill's opponents reject as medically meaningless.

Narrowly defined, the procedure is a rare form of late-stage abortion in which the fetus is usually delivered feet first until all but its head has emerged. Then a vacuum hose sucks brain tissue from the skull, collapsing the head so that it can be withdrawn.

It is, by all accounts, a distasteful procedure -- one that has given pause to many legislators who have otherwise favored abortion rights. Last year, Congress voted to ban the procedure, but the bill was vetoed by President Clinton.

"This is more properly called partial-birth infanticide than partial-birth abortion," said Dr. William Hogan, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist from Rockville.

But Dr. Paul D. Blumenthal, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, said doctors often have to perform procedures that are not aesthetically appealing.

"There's a lot of things we do in medicine that aren't pretty," said Blumenthal, who contended that the terminology in the bill was so vague that it could refer to any abortion at any stage of pregnancy.

In the hearings and in dueling news conferences before the hearing, backers and foes of the measure agreed on virtually nothing about the issue except that it could easily lead to a drawn-out Senate filibuster.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller indicated that he would give the bill its chance on the floor if the committee approves the measure, which seems almost certain. Last year, the committee approved similar legislation, but it never came to a floor vote. "Just like the pro-choice side was treated fairly in previous years, then the pro-life side will be treated fairly this year," the Prince George's Democrat said. "The voters expect their elected officials not to duck tough issues."

Both sides offered emotionally charged testimony yesterday from mothers who made radically different decisions about their doomed pregnancies.

Maureen Mary Britell, who said she used to picket abortion clinics, told senators that she was 6 1/2 months pregnant in 1994 when a late sonogram revealed that the fetus had a fatal condition in which the brain does not develop.

With no chance that the fetus could survive, Britell said, she and her husband decided to have early labor induced. But complications during the delivery made it necessary to cut the umbilical cord while the baby was in the birth canal and to turn to the partial-birth procedure, she said.

"This legislation would have tied my doctors' hands so they could not have done what was best for me and my family," Britell said.

Margaret Sheridan, a pediatric nurse from Chevy Chase, said Britell should not have been permitted to make the choice she did.

Sheridan said that halfway through one of her own pregnancies, she learned the fetus had an abdominal defect that was fatal. She said she decided to carry the fetus, who died within an hour after birth, to term.

"These babies can be delivered. There's no reason to kill the baby," she said.

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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