Ebb tide?

October 14, 2003

A DECADE ago, shortly after Democrats last captured the White House along with both houses of Congress, the abortion rights movement hit its high water mark.

President Bill Clinton revoked Republican executive orders that placed regulatory restrictions on the margins of abortion services. And advocates who had battled for 20 years to prevent Congress from unraveling rights extended by the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade sought to finally settle the issue by formally writing those protections into law.

The tide has now turned almost completely. President Bush is expected to swiftly sign into law a bill one vote away from final approval by the Republican-led Congress that both sides believe has the potential to significantly weaken the broad guarantees of abortion rights that have been federal policy for a generation.

A limited and mostly symbolic measure that seeks to ban one specific type of abortion, its enactment after two vetoes by Mr. Clinton would nonetheless represent "a big pivot" in America's answer to the abortion question, observed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

The time has probably long passed for lamenting that the intensely personal tragedy of abortion should serve so often as the fault line in American politics. The drive to intrude, to intercept, to intervene in the difficult and painful decisions made mostly by young, unmarried women is a compelling force in the dominant wing of the Republican Party that also finds support among conservative Democrats.

In the case of the current bill, though, the political appeal of the so-called partial birth abortion issue appears to have trumped a genuine desire to limit abortions. The measure as drafted appears unlikely to survive the inevitable Supreme Court challenge. Its job is to advance the cause through shock value.

This rarely used procedure, in which second- or third-trimester abortions are performed in the birth canal, was seized upon by abortion opponents during the early Clinton years as a powerful means to illustrate that abortion is repugnant.

Their graphic displays never dealt with the agony of prospective parents forced by some late-term catastrophe to consider the prospect of terminating a pregnancy this way. But the Supreme Court considered them in 2000, when it struck down a Nebraska law banning the procedure - in part because it failed to exempt cases when the health of the mother is at stake.

Sponsors of the federal ban were undeterred. They consider maternal health a loophole, and refused to compromise on the point. Instead, they inserted congressional "findings" that the procedure is never medically necessary.

That argument probably won't fly in court. But Senate supporters of abortion rights - some of whom have been persuaded to back this bill - should reconsider. Even a questionable congressional dictate on abortion procedures erodes a woman's right to choose free from governmental controls, and may have such a chilling effect on doctors that they won't perform abortions at all.

Which, of course, is the real objective.

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