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Legislators and Women’s Bodies


In one day, the federal government and the state of Florida stepped in to control the physical autonomy of a woman’s body.

In Washington, the Senate passed to so-called “partial birth abortion” ban, a gruesomely named procedure for an equally gruesome process that is only used by doctors in the second and third trimester of pregnancy to save the life or health of the mother. The procedure is rarely used, and with good reason. For the doctor and the mother, the procedure is a heartwrenching process in which painful choices have been made.

The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade makes abortions in the first and second trimesters legal. Third trimester abortions are banned except to protect the health or save the life of the mother. The new law, expected to be signed by Bush immediately, in effect makes third semester abortions illegal altogether, and may do the same for some second trimester abortions.

Also yesterday, that crazy state of Florida enacted a law allowing Gov. Bush to order that feeding tubes be reinserted into 39-year-old Terri Schiavo, a woman who has been in a vegetative state for 13 years. Terry is not in a coma, and could live years longer, but to what end? Court-appointed doctors have reported that she has no cognitive abilities.

Her parents have objected to the removal of life-sustaining fluids, and their supporters have flooded the Internet with videos of Schiavo laughing and talking. When she did that is anyone’s guess, but it certainly has not been in recent years. Doctors say any physical responses are reflexive and not intentional acts.

Every court that has heard the case has ruled in favor of the husband. These include all the state higher courts, the federal courts, and the Supreme Court that refused to grant her parent’s appeal of the Florida court order that allowed the removal of feeding tubes.

The legal issue is not as clear as civil libertarians would hope. In 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that a state can impose a high standard of proof on a proponent of removal of life-sustaining fluids when the patient has no advance medical directive. That case, Cruzan v. Missouri, left the door open for the state of Missouri to keep Cruzan alive, in spite of her parents’ pleas (Cruzan was not married).

Baby brother Bush has learned well from his big brother how to be an imperial leader, denying his subjects civil liberties. Gov. Bush earlier this year ordered the appointment of a guardian ad litem for the fetus of a mentally retarded woman who was raped in a Florida home for adults. He wanted to be sure the woman did not have an abortion (she did not, nor did she ever indicate that she would), even though an abortion would have been entirely legal under Florida law. In a statement last night, Bush said he was not “playing God.” Maybe he was just playing Machiavelli, then. He was definitely playing all-powerful-panderer to the political right.

Aside from the legal and ethical implications of the Florida and federal legislation, ask yourself this question: If these were men’s lives we were dealing with, would the law be ordering what should be done with their bodies?

I think not. In fact, I am sure that it would not.

ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teachers law and psychology, and follows the Bush regime’s dismantling of the Constitution at Civil Liberties Watch. She can be reached at:


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