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Overturning Roe v. Wade is only one route to the return of demeaning, deadly back alley abortions. Anti-choice extremists have used political and physical intimidation to decrease the number of abortion providers to it’s lowest level in the 30 years since Roe, leaving women with very limited access to abortion services. They’re working to run clinics out of business with onerous restrictions. The U.S. Congress is currently considering the most sophisticated and effective in a large arsenal of legislative weapons, a so-called “partial birth” abortion ban.
On May 14, 1998 every abortion clinic in Wisconsin ceased operations when a federal judge refused to block a state law banning “partial birth” abortion. Doctors said the ban was so broad that they could face life imprisonment for performing any abortion at any stage of pregnancy — even for those using standard methods early in pregnancy. Women regained access to abortion services only after prosecutors promised not to prosecute doctors for first trimester procedures. Welcome to the reality of so-called “partial birth” abortion bans.
Eight years after the anti-choice movement first introduced “partial birth” abortion legislation in the U.S. Congress and state houses across the country, it is still not recognized for what it is: part of a carefully crafted, national strategy to ban all abortion. It’s easy to understand why anti-choice zealots portray the bans as narrowly drawn for the limited purpose of stopping a certain late-term abortion procedure. The mystery is why many pro-choice leaders and the mainstream media have been slow to expose the reality that nowhere in most of the bills is there any reference to stage of pregnancy–not viability, not trimesters nor weeks of gestation. A simple look at the legislation reveals that calling these bills bans on late-term abortion is factually inaccurate.
The term “partial birth” abortion cannot be found in any medical dictionary because it is a political term that anti-choice zealots made up as part of their public relations campaign to stigmatize all abortion. When talking about the bans, advocates use graphic language about late-term abortion that is different from anything found in the legislation itself. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which represents most ob-gyn specialists, has rejected these bans, which fail “to use recognized medical terminology and fail to define explicitly the prohibited medical techniques it criminalizes.”
Federal Judge Gerald Rosen, a George H. W. Bush appointee, permanently enjoined an early Michigan ban because it was so vague that doctors lacked notice as to what abortion procedures were banned. A temporary restraining order against legislation in Arkansas said that the “act applies at any stage of gestation,” and that it defies logic to say that the language applies to only one type of abortion. Despite evolution in the language defining “partial birth” abortion since these decisions, a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Stenberg v. Carhart found a Nebraska statute unconstitutional and said that the definition of “partial birth” abortion remains so broad that it could outlaw the safest, most common methods of abortion used in the second trimester of pregnancy.
When voters are shown the reality of the legislation they reject attempts to ban “partial birth” abortion. The Center for Reproductive Rights (formerly the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy) reports that “after voters in Washington, Maine and Colorado were educated about ‘partial birth’ abortion, ballot initiatives on this issue were defeated in all three states.” The Center’s 1998 national poll of registered voters revealed that an astonishing 77% were seriously concerned that such bans allowed no exceptions for serious harm to a woman’s health and 69 % were very troubled that the legislation is deceptive, banning the safest and most commonly used abortion procedures.
It’s time to wake-up to the reality of this bogus legislation in order to protect the lives, health and dignity of women seeking safe and legal abortion. So called “partial birth” abortion bans have passed the U.S. Congress many times over the past several years and were vetoed by President Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush reiterated the high priority he places on passage of a “partial birth” abortion ban in his State of the Union address. He is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the bill, delivered by the Republican majority and compliant Democrats in Congress, so that he can make it the law of the land. Prosecutors and judges appointed by Bush could then interpret the legislation to broadly ban abortion procedures — exactly as anti-choice radicals intend.
The pro-choice majority and its leaders must change the debate on “partial birth” abortion bans, rejecting the deceptive terms offered by anti-choice extermists since it has no relation to the content or purpose of the legislation. They must act decisively with a clear, unified message before this dishonest strategy has the intended effect of banning all abortion and rendering Roe v. Wade a hollow shell.
KARYN STRICKLER is the former executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League where she successfully codified the principles of Roe v. Wade in state law. She was the founder and executive director of Fifty plus One, where she led an effort to defeat so-called “partial birth” abortion in Maryland in 1998 and to educate the media and pro-choice leaders across the country on the issue. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org