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House Votes to Restrict Abortions (Post, June 5)
NARAL: Pro-Choice America
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Partial Birth Abortion
Allison Herwitt
Director of Government Relations
NARAL: Pro-Choice America

Thursday, June 05, 2003; 11:00 a.m. ET

Following on the heels of a March vote in the Senate, late Wednesday the U.S. House of Representatives voted to outlaw the procedure abortion foes call "partial birth" abortion. Unlike President Clinton who twice vetoed similar legislation, President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law.

Alison Herwitt, director of government relations for NARAL: Pro-Choice America, was online to take your questions and comments.

Note: Rep. Steve Chabot, lead sponsor of the House bill, was online today at 2:30 p.m.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Ashburn, Va.: Let me be frank: as someone who is neither particularly "pro-choice" or "pro-life" -- which makes me weakly "pro-choice" by default -- I find that NARAL's hard pro-abortion, no matter the circumstances party-line actually pushes me towards a more "pro-life" position. And in many ways I doubt this is a unique reaction. Does NARAL worry that by staunchly defending a woman's "right" to destroy not an embryo, not an undeveloped fetus, but a de facto premature infant (in the case of "partial birth abortion"), it will ironically bring about a serious, widespread anti-abortion backlash?

Allison Herwitt: Thanks for your question. It's a common one, and this is an important topic to understand clearly, as it forms the basis of the debate over choice.

"Abortion on demand" is not the law of the land. Roe v. Wade struck a compromise between women's rights and the potential for life. Roe allows states to ban abortion altogether after a fetus is viable - and in fact, 41 states have done so. (Such laws must include exceptions to protect a woman's life and health.) NARAL Pro-Choice America supports the Roe compromise, and this forms the basis of our position on every choice-related issue. The anti-choice claim that pro-choice groups and individuals are in favor of unrestricted abortions in the 7th, 8th or 9th month of pregnancy is flatly wrong.

Such rhetoric appears particularly frequently in the context of the debate over the bill outlawing safe abortion procedures (the so-called "partial-birth" abortion ban). Despite their depiction of nearly full-term fetuses being terminated, bans like the one the House passed last night are crafted broadly to outlaw different types of procedures before fetuses are viable. (In fact, the Supreme Court found this when it took up, and struck down, a similar state law in 2000.)

NARAL Pro-Choice America believes that private medical decisions should be made by women and their families, in consultation with their doctors - not politicians. The bans on abortion procedures are designed, in part, to perpetuate the misinformation you have heard about both the law of the land and what the pro-choice position really is. Hope this clarifies.


USA Wasted effort: As an OB/GYN specializing in high-risk deliveries, I am amazed by the amount of time and money wasted (in my mind) to ban something that happens so rarely. I myself have only done two -- both times it was because if I hadn't BOTH the mother and the fetus would have died. All of the parents involved were devastated but went along with my recommendations as life-saving measures. No one using abortion as birth-control waits until the third trimester -- they just don't. I challenge those sponsoring the bill to locate those women who just like to have late-term abortions "for the fun of it." It's like banning flag-burning in the USA. I'm pretty up on what's going on in my community/state/country and yet I can't find this massive outbreak of flag-burning that's going on requiring us to make laws against it (in fact I've never seen anyone here burning any flags at all!) Politicians just want to make political statements about issues/events that aren't going on, waste our money, and send us taxpayers the bill.

Allison Herwitt: Hi "USA." Thanks for your observation. The anti-choice movement has discovered that Americans won't let them recriminalize abortion outright, so they have undertaken a strategy of chipping away at the Roe v. Wade decision - so that, even if the right to choose still exists in law, no woman will be able to exercise it for all the barriers.

And in fact, they admit it. One anti-choice leader boasted: "With this bill we are beginning to dismantle, brick by brick, the deadly edifice created by Roe v. Wade." Troubling, indeed.

Keep up your good work in providing health care to women who need it.


Oakton, Va.: Is it clear to medical professionals what exactly is being outlawed by this bill?

Allison Herwitt: Hello, Oakton. No, in fact, it's not clear at all what's being outlawed in this bill, but that's part of the sponsors' goal. Rather than identifying a recognized, established medical procedure in the bill passed last night, authors instead used vague and broad language. Doctors who have examined the bill believe it could criminalize a number of safe and common procedures in the second trimester. In fact, the Supreme Court confirmed this suspicion when they considered and struck down a similar ban in 2000.

Also, without an exception for women's health, such a proposal is doubly dangerous for women.


Confused: Please help me understand the issue. Previously, we were told that partial birth abortion was something that didn't technically exist and that in the rare cases where it is performed to save the life of a woman, the ban would not affect such cases. Now, there are reports that the previous reports were wrong and that the procedure does exist for purposes of abortions. Does or does not partial birth abortion exist for the use of abortions? Also, does the bill that Congress is working on provide for an exception in the life of a woman?

Allison Herwitt: Hi, "Confused." It's not surprising that you have questions around this bill. It's designed to mislead the public. There is no such thing as "partial-birth" abortion. It's a political term made up by the anti-choice moment, and has no medical meaning.

Furthermore, sponsors talk about one procedure in a graphic and misleading manner. They are betting on the fact that most observers won't read the language of their proposal carefully - because there, it's clear they do not outlaw only one procedure. The bill's definition is broad and vaguely worded, designed to sweep in other safe and common procedures. Also, the bill isn't limited to the post-viability stage, so it outlaws constitutionally protected abortions that happen much earlier than they claim. The bill does include a very narrow exception for a woman's life, but none at all for her health - and aside from this being dangerous for women, it's also unconstitutional.

Rather than criminalizing safe medical care, we believe the government should focus on proactive policies that protect women's health and reduce the need for abortion. Better contraception, sex education, and pre-natal care would be a good start.


Fairfax, Va.: Groups who support abortion rights often say (as you just did) "private medical decisions should be made by women and their families, in consultation with their doctors." To me, this smells of let decisions on abortions be unmitigated under all circumstances. If a woman wants to privately decide late in the pregnancy that she has cold feet about having a baby let that decision go unnoticed, unregulated and unchecked by anyone who respects life. It is a carte blanche approach to abortion.

Allison Herwitt: Hello, Fairfax. While we do believe women and doctors are best equippped to make private medical decisions, please do refer back to the rest of our earlier response. Roe v. Wade allows states to outlaw abortions after viability, and as we mentioned, almost all states (including your state of Virginia) do have such laws. Thus, the woman deciding she has "cold feet" late in pregnancy cannot legally terminate. Such abortions are only legal in instances where her life or health is at risk. Please don't be fooled by the claim that "abortion on demand" is legal in the United States.


Burke, Va.: Could you theorize on why the Republican-led administration would go through so much effort to pass this bill when there is such a high probability of its being overturned on appeal to the courts?

Allison Herwitt: Hi, Burke. Thanks for your question. You're right that the bill the president will sign is clearly unconstitutional. However, the anti-choice movement persists in pressing it for a number of reasons. First, it sensationalizes the debate over freedom of choice and diverts the public's attention from the real issues - the right to privacy, and protecting women's health - to the act of abortion. Second, they hope this bill will be in the legal queue if and when a Supreme Court justice retires, which could happen at any time (maybe even this month). Finally, this bill mobilizes the anti-choice political base, a constituency President Bush relies upon for political support.


How bad is it?: You say that this bill could potentially ban more than just one procedure, as the supporters claim. Could you please explain how this would happen?

Allison Herwitt: Good question, thanks. If sponsors had wanted to ban only one procedure, they could have done it any of three ways: (1) identify the procedure by its recognized medical name; (2) use the definition from the expert medical organization ACOG (American College of OB/GYNs); or (3) explicitly exclude other procedures. They chose none of the above, making their true intentions clear - they want to outlaw many abortions, and to do so without being honest to the American public.

It's not just lawyers and medical experts who believe this; the Supreme Court reached the same conclusion. If you are interested, read the majority opinion in Stenberg v. Carhart.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Allison,

I watched the House in action on this and was pretty disgusted by what I saw: a bunch of old, white men (for the most part) setting back women's rights and trying to keep women in their proper place -- beneath men.

As a man who likes and appreciates women, it made me ashamed. I want women to have full control over their bodies and health, and feel no man has a right to regulate what they can or cannot do. I doubt seriously that a room full of women would reach the same conclusion as these unrepresentative representatives.

How fast can this be challenged?

Allison Herwitt: Hi, Washington. Thanks for watching last night's debate. (At least we weren't alone!) As reported, a number of pro-choice groups intend to challenge this unconstitutional bill. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation, among others, will file suit to block the law as soon as President Bush signs it.

But you're right - it's quite serious, and if the Supreme Court's composition changes by even one justice, laws like this could be allowed to stand. The Court struck down a similar law by only a 5-4 vote. Very chilling.


Arlington, Va.: There is one issue regarding partial birth abortion that has never been clear to me, and this morning's Post article hasn't helped -- under what conditions must a partial birth abortion be performed to save a mother's life? How can taking an extra measure to kill the fetus as it leaves the birth canal save the mother?

The article mentioned that the procedure may save a mother whose uterus is likely to perforate, but this doesn't make sense since the fetus is already outside of the uterus when destroyed.


Allison Herwitt: Thanks for your question, Arlington. When considering this debate, it's important to remember that most abortions happen very early in pregnancy. Ninety-nine percent take place before the 20th week.

That having been said, you asked what circumstances might make one procedure safer than another. Frankly, that decision is made by an expert doctor (not us, nor politicians) and could be different for every woman. This is true for every kind of medical care. A number of women who never expected they would face a troubled pregnancy have testified to Congress that their doctor was able to save their life, health, and future fertility for being able to provide the safest care possible.

Our concern here at NARAL Pro-Choice America is that women's health be protected and that doctors not be forced to offer less-safe care for women who need it - because the alternatives are considered criminal acts. If the safest procedures are not available, severe health consequences can result, including: death, infertility, paralysis, coma, stroke, hemorrhage, brain damage, and infection. Threatening a doctor with a prison term is bad medicine for both health-care providers and the women they treat.


Alexandria, Va.: I notice Rep. James Moran, my congressman, changed his vote from yes to no on the partial birth measure. (Good for him, I say.) But do you know why he switched?

Allison Herwitt: Hi, Alexandria. We were also delighted to see Rep. Moran's vote against this deceptive legislation. He made a very impassioned floor statement explaining his reasons; you can access it on the Thomas Web site, or perhaps from his office. Please make sure to pass along your thanks for his vote; he deserves credit for seeing through the deception behind this bill.


Washington, D.C.: Why is it so difficult for the pro-choice community to mobilize against the minority of anti-abortion proponents?

Allison Herwitt: Thanks for your question, Washington. As the anti-choice movement continues to hand President Bush bill after bill to sign, it will become increasingly apparent to the pro-choice American majority what his true views are on the issue of freedom of choice. He will become less able to obscure his position on this critical issue, as he did during the 2000 campaign.


Allison Herwitt: Thanks, everyone, for your interest and good questions. Signing off now.

Allison Herwitt and Donna Crane
NARAL Pro-Choice America


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