Renewed battle on late-term abortions 'Partial-birth' issue: Debate should center on policy, not on unverifiable numbers.

March 09, 1997

OPPONENTS OF abortion have seized on the issue of "partial-birth" procedures as an effective tool for undermining support for legalized abortion. Although most states already have restrictions on late-term abortions -- a power specifically designated to states in Supreme Court rulings -- Congress appears poised to enact a federal law on the subject.

Maryland bans post-viability (third trimester and late second-trimester) abortions except in cases of danger to the life or health of the mother, or severe fetal deformity. In 1992, voters overwhelmingly supported access to abortions before the fetus can live outside the womb, as well as for restrictions (with important exceptions) after that point.

"Partial-birth" abortion is a lay term, not a medically precise description. But it is distasteful enough to grab the attention of many people who otherwise think of themselves as pro-choice. The truth is, the description of any abortion technique used later in pregnancy would be equally troubling. Late abortions are as difficult emotionally as they are medically. Women seeking them almost always have compelling medical reasons. The "healthy" women are usually too young or poor to have access to an earlier abortion or, for that matter, to contraception. The best way to stop these abortions is to help women prevent pregnancies they are not able to carry to term.

A recent flap over late-term abortion statistics has reignited passions on this issue. Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, claims to have "lied through my teeth" when he said last fall that only a "few hundred" procedures could qualify as partial-birth abortions each year, when in fact he knew that there were several thousand, including many performed on healthy women with healthy fetuses.

The difference is that "late-term" abortions can mean either late second-trimester (20 to 26 weeks) or third trimester (after 26 weeks). There are many more abortions during the second trimester than very late in pregnancy.

Americans are troubled about post-viability abortions. But they should also be concerned about women who face agonizing choices, and who want the best chance possible for preserving their ability to have another child. Dictating medical practice to physicians is a dangerous precedent. The Supreme Court said this issue belongs in State Houses, not on Capitol Hill. Congress doesn't need to spend its time playing abortion politics by passing legislation that stands little chance of surviving judicial review.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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