Threatening pro-choice

June 22, 2000|By Roberta Geidner-Antoniotti

The nation's highest court recently heard arguments in Carhart vs. Stenberg, which explores one of the most explosive offshoots of the abortion debate since its legalization in 1973. The Supreme Court case was spawned by a Nebraska statute that bans the controversial procedure dubbed "partial birth" abortion (PBA).

The introduction of the term "partial birth" into the American lexicon has added a new dimension to abortion politics in the United States and left people on both sides of the issue wondering what PBA is and how we got here.

Partial birth abortion is a political term devised by anti-choice hard-liners presumably describing a rarely used procedure called "intact dilation and extraction" (D&X). Physicians use the D&X method in the second or third trimester of pregnancy when a woman's life or health is in severe danger, or the fetus will not become viable because of an abnormality.

Contrary to some reports, women do not suddenly reconsider a healthy pregnancy in the last trimester. This portrayal is a gross misinterpretation designed to provoke feelings of horror in the mass public and elicit sympathy for the anti-choice argument. Unfortunately, it seems to be working to confuse the issue.

Since the popularization of the term partial birth abortion, misinformed legislators have chosen to support bans against PBA. Sixty-two percent of American voters identify themselves as pro-choice, yet many of these same people are unclear about their position on partial birth abortion.

As evidenced in three state referendums, when pro-choice citizens really understand the devastating ramifications of a campaign intended to chip away at reproductive freedom in this country, they are in solid opposition. Citizens deserve the same clarity and opportunity to decide for themselves on the issue of partial birth abortion.

The problem lies in a slick campaign by anti-choice extremists designed to shroud the real issue in inflammatory language and gory images of fetal cruelty. Pro-choice advocates must disentangle themselves from the popular rhetoric and recognize a few important truths about the partial birth abortion debate.

First, legislation like the Nebraska bill that spawned Carhart is worded so broadly and vaguely that it could outlaw all methods of abortion in any trimester. If the Supreme Court decides to uphold Carhart, it will result in a complete abortion ban.

Second, post-viability abortions are already outlawed in all states, except in extreme cases of harm to a woman's life or health, or fetal anomaly. Not only is the Nebraska statute unnecessary, it does not include a similar exception for serious damage to a woman's health.

Third, Carhart is a direct attack on Roe vs. Wade, the law which legalized abortion. This case gives the Supreme Court license to revisit the landmark decision and possibly overturn it, making abortion illegal once again in this country.

According to Reagan appointee Richard A. Posner, chief judge of the 7th Circuit Court, "These statutes are not concerned with saving fetuses, with protecting fetuses from a particularly cruel death, with protecting the health of women, with protecting viable fetuses, or with increasing the ... population ... They are concerned with making a statement in the ongoing war for public opinion, though an incidental effect may be to discourage some late-term abortions. The statement is that fetal life is more valuable than women's health."

While anti-choice forces are declaring that Carhart pertains only to a single method of abortion, the future of women's reproductive freedom hangs precariously in the balance. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case in June. If it chooses to uphold the abortion ban, it will deal a great blow to the constitutional protection of a woman's right to choose.

If the case is struck down as unconstitutional, state legislatures can expect to see an onslaught of bills with carefully worded definitions of "partial birth" abortion and/or exceptions for a woman's health, depending on the specifics of the decision.

In either scenario, abortion continues to be far from settled for advocates on either side of the issue.

The outcome of Carhart becomes even more vital in light of the forthcoming presidential election.

The next president will have the opportunity to appoint up to three of the nine justices to the Supreme Court, setting its political tone for years to come. It has never been more important to consider who you want to represent your reproductive rights as you go to the polls in November.

The pending Supreme Court decision is a wake-up call that the opposition to a woman's right to choose never rests, and neither can we. We must never assume that our rights are not at risk.

Roberta Geidner-Antoniotti is president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Maryland Inc.

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