Returning women to abortion debate

April 25, 2000|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- At least they won't be showing the cartoon in the Supreme Court. For once we will hold this debate without the infamous line drawings that look straight through a woman, as if she were an invisible vessel, to the perfect Gerber baby lying within.

That's been the defining image, the most graphic of graphics ever since the pro-life movement invented the phrase "partial-birth abortion" as another strike on the public opinion front.

The Supreme Court prefers the Constitution to the cartoon. So today they'll hear a case -- Stenberg vs. Carhart -- that has ratcheted up the rhetoric and the politics of abortion. And with luck, the woman will not be invisible.

This wrangling over so-called "partial-birth abortion" has been on an inevitable path to the high court. Over the past decade or more, anti-abortion groups switched from trying to make abortion illegal to trying to make it impossible. While one arm attacked clinics, another created hurdles.

Five years ago, pro-lifers embarked on a new tactic to ban abortion one procedure at a time. The first target is what's known to medicine as dilation and extraction -- and the propaganda has been unrelenting. The central message is that droves of women carry their pregnancies to near term and then choose abortion instead of delivery.

The Catholic bishops first ran ads implying that a woman would have a late-term abortion to fit into her prom gown. Since then, one pro-life congressman after another, like Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, has suggested that women would choose these abortions if they "had a bad day." Or was it a bad hair day?

Congress has repeatedly passed a ban -- most recently this month -- just short of veto-proof. Some 30 states have also passed similar laws, most of which were overturned.

Then last fall, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld bans almost identical to those the 8th Circuit struck down. And since women of Nebraska, Arkansas and Iowa do not get a different set of fundamental rights than women in Wisconsin and Illinois, the matter landed in the Supreme Court.

The man who challenged the Nebraska law and put his name on this case is by no means a crusader from central casting. LeRoy Carhart is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who chose Nebraska as the place to practice medicine, and raise his family and his horses. But, at 58, he is also part of that diminishing breed of doctors who actually remember when abortion was illegal. He saw the results.

Today Dr. Carhart is the only remaining doctor in Nebraska who does second-trimester abortions. His patients have included preteen girls, women with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, AIDS.

All of these abortions were performed before the fetus was viable. Indeed, contrary to the spin on this story, "partial-birth abortion" bans are not truly directed at third trimester or viable fetuses. Such abortions are already banned by Nebraska and, indeed, by Roe vs. Wade, except to protect the life and health of the woman.

"Women's health became my life," Dr. Carhart has said. It's cost him his home and his horses -- victims to arsonists who linked their violence to his work. When the pro-life state Legislature passed the ban, Dr. Carhart realized that the wording was purposely broad enough to threaten any doctor using a range of safe, common methods. The penalty was, after all, 20 years in prison. That's twice the penalty for performing an illegal abortion in the bad old days.

There are a number of reasons to predict the Supreme Court will rule against these deep incursions into abortion rights. The words "partial-birth abortion" have no fixed meaning in medicine; the laws are so vague that a doctor would have to guess which methods are outlawed. The lawmakers are also practicing medicine without a license, deciding which treatment a doctor can and cannot provide.

But the most insidious part of the campaign is that these laws make no allowance to protect the health of the woman.

The Nebraska ban, like the ones before Congress, only permits an exception to save her life. Do we really want a pro-life legislator to have the second and final opinion? Do we want the state to decide when and which abortion is necessary to save the life of the woman? And when it is merely to save her uterus, her kidney, her eyesight?

And do we think for a minute that if the ban on this procedure holds, there won't be another ban? And another?

Keep in mind that cartoon portrait. Another unlikely source, Judge Richard Posner, a conservative Reagan-appointed appeals court judge, has probably written the best caption. In a blistering opinion he wrote that the "partial-birth abortion" bans are only concerned with making a statement in the ongoing war for public opinion: "The statement is that fetal life is more valuable than women's health."

It's up to the Supreme Court now to put the woman back in the picture.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist. Her e-mail address is

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