When Congress returns next week, it will decide whether to override the president's veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. When the bill first came before the House, Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) tried mightily, and unsuccessfully, to prevent the showing -- during debate on the floor -- of line drawings of this procedure.

Her concern was logical since she opposes the bill. As the drawings showed, what happens to between at least 600 and 2,000 fetuses a year -- during the second- and third-trimester abortions -- is that a doctor delivers the intact fetus, feet first, through the birth canal. All but its head is then exposed. A surgical scissors is inserted into the base of the fetus's skull; the scissors are opened to expand the hole, and a suction catheter sucks out the brains, thereby causing the skull to collapse and enabling the head to be extracted.

In most cases, the fetus is alive until the final attack. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who is not a pro-life warrior, says of this procedure: "It is as close to infanticide as anything I have come upon."

This is not as hyperbolic as it may appear. According to Roe v. Wade, once the fetus is born, it is a "person" under the Constitution. When, however, the fetus is only inches away from having those constitutional rights, is killing him or her so close to actual infanticide that the procedure is, to say the least, uncivilized? The arguments for sustaining the president's veto include the claim that because of the anesthesia, the fetus is already dead before the scissors penetrate the skull. So what's all the fuss? In testimony before Congress, however, the American Society of Anesthesiologists insisted there is "absolutely no basis in scientific fact" for making the anesthetist the terminator, because the anesthesia would not kill the fetus.

Supporters of the president's veto of the bill banning these particular late-term abortions claim they are performed only when the fetus is severely deformed and could cause great harm to the mother or even her death.

The president has said that "under such circumstances" if a woman does not undergo this kind of abortion, her body would be "ripped to shreds" -- and she might never be able to have children again.

There is extensive medical evidence to the contrary. Dr. Martin Haskell of Dayton, Ohio, has performed many of these particular late-term abortions. In a 1993 tape-recorded interview, he told American Medical News -- published by the American Medical Association -- that 80 percent of his late-term abortions in this category were elective. Other physicians specializing in this abortion technique also do not claim the life of the woman is at issue in the majority of their cases (American Medical News, Nov. 20, 1995).

As for the president's claim that in some cases there is no alternative because of the extreme danger to the mother, a number of practicing experts in this field emphatically disagree. Pamela Smith, director of medical education in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Chicago, says: "There are absolutely no obstetrical situations encountered in this country which require a partially delivered human fetus to be destroyed to preserve the life of the mother."

Dr. Joseph DeCook, a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, has been practicing for 31 years. He points out that the need to open the cervix four or five centimeters creates "great exposure to infection, and the {partial-birth abortion} can also lead to tearing the uterus. . . . This procedure is not taught by any residency program in the country."

The ban, nonetheless, has an exception that allows a partial-birth abortion when necessary to save the life of the mother. But the president wants a further exception permitting the procedure in order to "prevent serious health consequences" -- otherwise unspecified. This could include maternal depression and other psychological states, thereby allowing a wide range of non-emergency partial-birth abortions.

Dr. C. Everett Koop was one of the nation's leading pediatric surgeons and an expert on saving severely disabled infants. He says, "In no way can I twist my mind to see that partial-birth abortion is a medical necessity for the mother."

But others regard this virtual infanticide as a political pro-choice necessity. Many pro-choice Americans, however, do not support this definition of "choice."