So the Senate is banning partial-birth abortion again.
But opponents of the ban say it is about abortion politics, not about a true effort to limit late-term abortions.
“The phrase so-called ‘partial-birth abortion’ does not describe a recognized medical procedure. Rather, it is an inflammatory term invented by abortion opponents to provoke legislators and the public,” the American Civil Liberties Union said.
“The legislation before the Senate would seriously compromise women’s health and drastically limit physicians’ discretion to choose the most medically appropriate abortion method for their patients,” it added.
The bill would make it illegal to perform a “partial-birth” abortion except to save the life of a woman — although backers of the ban say there is never a case when it is in fact a necessary life-saving procedure. Doctors could face up to two years in prison plus fines.
Unlike previous bans, this one will not be vetoed by President Clinton (although it probably will be overturned by the Supreme Court). Assuming it does pass and is overturned, I think this could actually be a good thing for pro-choice politics in the US.
There’s a tendency, in the US, to characterize the abortion debate as a clash of extremists. I don’t think this is accurate. Even moderates on the pro-life side favor using the police to compel pregnant women to give birth against their will – which is, by most standards, an extreme stance. The most moderate pro-life position imaginable is still an extreme position (government-mandated childbirth is the essence of the pro-life position; if you don’t favor using state force to make pregnant woman give birth against their will, you’re not pro-life).
While there are some extremist pro-choicers – like me – who favor absolute abortion on demand until the moment of childbirth, we’re not in control of the pro-choice movement, or the Democratic party. On the contrary, the Democrats – including Democrats who are strongly supported by Planned Parenthood and NARAL – have proposed and supported late-term abortion bans again and again. (Here’s the current proposal). These bills would have banned late-term abortions except to protect the life and health of the mother, would have been constitutional, and would not have been vetoed by Clinton.
But republicans have prevented these bans from being voted on, again and again. Why? Because their goal isn’t to ban late-term abortions; it’s to create the illusion that the Democrats favor late-term abortions. The purpose isn’t to change the law; the purpose is to display gigantic photographs of bloody baby corpses on the floor of congress and ask how Democrats can favor such a thing. A constitutional bill that would actually ban needless late-term abortions would be supported by Democrats – which would ruin the picture pro-lifers want to paint of equal extremists on both sides of the issue.
(Along these lines, it’s interesting to notice that some pro-life activists who aren’t Republican party spinners oppose the “partial-birth” abortion ban, because they correctly recognize that it wouldn’t prevent any actual abortions from taking place. Link via Diotima).
The debate isn’t over “do we ban late-term abortions or not?” Both parties favor banning late-term abortions. The debate is over “do we define late-term abortions in a manner that would pass court scrutiny, and with an exception to protect the mother’s life or health; or do we define it vaguely, and without protecting the mother’s health, so that the courts will near-definitely strike it down?”
The legislative debate, in other words, is between centrist pro-choice democrats, and extremist pro-life republicans. Extremist pro-choicers like me – who think women have an absolute right to abortion for any reason, at any stage of pregnancy – exist, but we aren’t really part of this debate. Our legislation isn’t on the table.
If passing an unconstitutional bill (and having it signed by the White House) takes the “partial birth” abortion issue off the table for a while, that would be excellent for the Democrats. (It may be the Republicans see it this way too – look at how long it’s taken them to bring this to the floor since Bush was elected). The only hope Republicans really have is to placate their pro-life voters with side issues like these. The closer the abortion debate moves to the core issue – which is, do we want police enforcing childbirth on unwilling pregnant women? – the less happy Republicans will be.
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