Surviving Fetuses Would Get Rights under Pending Federal Legislation

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Byline: Eric Krol Daily Herald Political Writer

It's a rare outcome in one of the rarest and most controversial abortion procedures.

Detecting midway through a pregnancy that a baby will be born without a heart, lungs, brain or other organs vital to survival, a doctor induces labor hoping the fetus is expelled from the mother's womb already dead. In a very few cases, the baby lives, if only for an hour.

That scenario has abortion rights foes building political momentum for a federal measure that could open up a new wrinkle in the complex debate: At which stage is a fetus, by definition, considered an individual?

The Born Alive Infants Protection Act pending in Congress would for the first time extend federal legal protection to fetuses that survive abortions, labor-induced or otherwise.

The measure, which is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald of Inverness, effectively would require hospitals to provide medical care to babies who survive abortion. The care could be as simple as holding the baby and keeping it warm until it dies, or as complex as trying to save the premature baby's life if somehow he is born without life-ending birth defects.

"It is dismaying that, in this country, we need legislation to reaffirm our cherished and longstanding ideal that all living babies, regardless of circumstance, are human beings entitled to protection of the law," said Fitzgerald, an abortion opponent. "There's a consensus: You draw the line when the baby is born."

Induced-labor abortions are rare. In the 41 states that break down abortions by type, 2,614 women had induced-labor abortions in 1997, the last year for which data is available, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. That translates to 0.4 percent of all abortions.

The Illinois Department of Public Health, citing privacy laws, reports the two types of existing induced-birth abortions in a range of zero to 50, meaning that there could have been none of this type of abortion or as many as 100. If there were 100, that amounts to 0.2 percent of the 45,924 Illinois abortions in 1999.

The proposal sailed through the Senate 98-0 last month - Illinois senators Fitzgerald and Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, both voted in favor - as an amendment to the patients' bill of rights, much to the delight of suburban abortion opponents.

"This is not the ultimate answer, but it's a start," said Jim Finnegan, a Barrington resident who has been fighting abortion for 28 years. "And here's why: It calls to the people's attention some of the atrocities and the extremes involved with abortion."

Somewhat surprisingly, national abortion rights groups did not pressure senators to oppose the measure, even though they fought against a similar House version last year.

Leaders at the National Abortion Rights Action League and the National Abortion Federation say the measure is not about abortion and does not mandate a new standard of medical care for babies born during abortions. They attributed their opposition last year to not fully understanding the House version of the legislation.

Mary Anne Hackett, president of the Illinois Right to Life Committee, offers a different view: Abortion rights foes are afraid of the negative publicity that would have resulted from voting no.

"It's being called infanticide. …