Magazine article Insight on the News

Antiabortion Lawmakers Try to Redefine the 14th

Magazine article Insight on the News

Antiabortion Lawmakers Try to Redefine the 14th

Article excerpt

Opponents of abortion and those who favor leaving the decision to the woman and her doctor are faced off in a bitter congressional struggle. Here is how things stand in the House and Senate and what to expect.

Antiabortion forces in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives have shown almost as much influence as those who want to slash the federal bureaucracy and balance the budget. But given the Senate's more deliberative approach to social issues, coupled with President Clinton's vetoes, congressional opponents of abortion are wondering if they will ever win the victory for which they pray.

Judging from the budget bills winding their way through various House and Senate committees, the answer is a resounding "no" -- at least for now, say Republican staffers. The best-case scenario for abortion foes in the 104th Congress would be to win back provisions repealed by Clinton in 1993 -- and they have worked hard to do just that by attaching antiabortion amendments to several appropriations bills. Antiabortion congressmen predict that their fight will continue for many years, until they either have enough votes to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision of the Supreme Court, or to pass a new law defining a fetus as a person with all rights guaranteed under the Constitution. "We absolutely would love to see Roe overturned, but we don't have the votes that right now," concedes Jennifer Larkin, an aide to California GOP Rep. Robert Dornan, a leading abortion foe. "We can't do everything all at once. We are trying to expose the abortion issue for what it is'"

In the meantime, congressmen continue to hook antiabortion measures onto larger spending bills. The only freestanding antiabortion law now being considered would ban the controversial "partial-birth" abortion, in which the fetus' skull is punctured, the brain suctioned through a catheter and the skull collapsed to remove the fetus from the womb. The proposed bill won backing from 73 Democrats -- some of them normally pro-choice -- and the House voted 288-139 to approve the ban on Nov. 1. It won such broad support that the Republicans -- who lost just 15 votes from their own party on the measure -- came only one vote short of a veto-proof majority. If the measure passes in the Senate, it will be the first congressional ban on any type of abortion procedure since abortion was legalized under Roe. The president, however, has vowed to veto the bill.

"It sets a very, very dangerous precedent," says Kate Michelman, president of the Washington-based National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, or NARAL, "banning an established medical procedure." But the bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, calls it "a grisly, disgusting procedure." Indeed, the rhetoric over the ban has been heated and sometimes extreme. Supporters of the bill describe the "partial-birth" procedure dramatically, as one in which the "living fetus" is partially delivered and then killed; opponents counter with gruesome stories about women discovering that their children, if born, would live only a few hours in extreme pain.

The hotly debated bill does not ban all early abortions, but only the skull technique, technically called intact dilation and extraction, or D&E. The legislation and antiabortion advertisements have used the phrase "partial-birth abortion," which opponents are quick to point out is not a medical term. The bill's opponents note that the prohibition is for late-term use of the offending procedure -- after 24 weeks. They argue that abortions after 20 weeks are very rare, representing only 1 percent of all abortions, while only .04 percent of abortions take place after 24 weeks.

And according to physician Allan Rosenfield, dean of the Columbia University School of Public Health, the vast majority of these take place because of very serious abnormalities not discovered until late into the pregnancy. …

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