Aborting Women’s Rights

A woman’s right to choose was dealt a major blow on Oct. 21 with the Senate’s vote to ban a form of abortion commonly referred to as “partial-birth abortion.” The overwhelming (64-34) passage of the bill by the Senate was the first federal ban on a form of abortion passed in 30 years, and President Bush has already promised to sign the bill into law.

While abortions of this type are relatively rare, making up only about 2,200 of 1.3 million abortions performed in 2000, the legislation has much farther reaching implications.
Any ruling on the highly charged topic of abortion rights has deep symbolic meaning, with a victory like this for the anti-choice movement bolstering their confidence and demonstrating their political clout. And the actual language and specifics of the legislation are extremely disturbing.

For one thing the law uses vague colloquial terminology, like the term “partial-birth abortion,” which was coined by the anti-abortion movement, in place of medical language. This is harmful on several fronts. It helps to further remove the abortion debate from the realm of science, medicine and logic and pushes it into the nebulous area of morality, where the anti-abortion movement holds sway. While the legislation was intended to address what in medical terms is known as Dilation and Extraction (or intact dilation and evacuation), or D&X, the language is vague enough that it could be applied to other procedures as well. This is especially chilling in the effect it will have on doctors, who are likely to be intimidated by the threat of prosecution and lawsuits into avoiding any abortion procedures as much as possible. Doctors who perform the procedure could be punished with two years in prison, and the woman’s husband or parents if she is under 18 could also file lawsuits.

And most disturbing, the legislation specifically does not allow for abortions even in the case of danger to the woman’s life or health. Anti-abortion forces fought against a provision of that type on the grounds that it would create a “loophole” for doctors to do abortions whenever they wanted. But the deeper significance is that it furthers the trend of putting the unborn fetus’s well-being before the mother’s. And the fact that a woman’s husband or parents can sue over the procedure takes us back to primitive levels of misogyny, implying that these parties have more authority over a woman’s body than she does herself.

The legislation was opposed by the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstreticians and Gynecologists, the American Public Health Association and other medical professional organizations, as well as the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and NARAL Pro- Choice America.

“The Senate took its final step toward substituting politicians’ judgment for that of a woman, her family and her doctor,” says a statement from NARAL. “No one should be fooled as to the real intentions of the bill’s sponsors: they want to take away entirely the right to personal privacy and a woman’s right to choose.”

NOW president Kim Gandy said that, “like each of its predecessors, this bill is intentionally worded so vaguely that it could criminalize even some of the safest and most common abortion procedures after 12 weeks and well before fetal viability.”
The partial-birth abortion issue has been ricocheting through state legislatures and the Supreme Court for the past decade. President Clinton vetoed a ban on the procedure in 1996 and 1997, and in 2000 in the Stenberg v. Carhart case the Supreme Court voted 5-4 that Nebraska’s ban on the practice was unconstitutional. This ruling also essentially prohibited about 24 other states from enforcing their own bans on the procedure.
As soon as Bush signs this bill into law, various groups have promised to mount legal challenges.

“We will pursue every legal option, including a federal lawsuit, to prevent it from taking effect,” says a statement from Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt. “This legislation is the culmination of a deceptive campaign to endanger women’s lives and mislead the public for political gain.”

NARAL, NOW and Planned Parenthood are also planning for a march on Washington on April 25, 2004 to oppose the legislation and protect a woman’s right to choose.
“I know it will rally reproductive rights supporters from around the country to join us in marching on Washington,” said Gandy.

The legal challenges will likely eventually make it to the Supreme Court, which will again have the power to invalidate the ban.

According to National Right to Life Committee legislative director Douglas Johnson, “We hope that by the time the federal law reaches the Supreme Court, there will be a shift of at least one vote away from the extreme and inhumane position taken by the five justices [in the Stenberg case]. Does the Constitution really guarantee a right to mostly deliver a premature human infant and then brutally kill her?”

Johnson’s statement is indicative of the way anti-abortion forces have long spun the debate, focusing on what was described on the Senate floor, complete with graphic photos, as a “gruesome” and “barbaric” practice.

It’s true that the D&X procedure isn’t a pretty sight, involving the extracting of the fetus up to the navel, the crushing of its skull and draining fluid from its brain. But abortion rights proponents and doctors opposed to the ban are not explicitly advocating for the use of this procedure; rather they are fighting against legislation that not only bans this procedure but opens the door for more attacks on the right to choose and doctors who carry out abortions.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) heralded the vote by saying that “this will go down in history as a turning-point day, where we start to realize that the child in the womb is not a piece of property.” But the danger is that it may also be seen as a “turning-point” day, down the road if the clock is again turned back on decades of women’s rights efforts; a day when a woman was again declared a piece of property, with her husband given decision-making power over her body and the contents of her womb being considered more valuable than her own health or even her very life.

Jackie Lalley, an independent communications consultant in Chicago, called the supporters of the ban “sick.”

“First of all, there's no such thing as a ‘partial-birth’ abortion,” she said. “It's abortion, plain and simple! No matter whether it's in the first, second, or third trimester, the law *must* protect the woman's right to choose whether she has a child or not. What we have here is a bunch of rich, straight, white men making policy decisions that have zero impact on them and life-changing, distastrous impact on women--especially poor women who can't afford to bribe a doctor to perform an illegal procedure safely. There's also the fact that many women who badly want children but happen to have terrible pregnancy complications will die if this law goes through and late-term abortion is made illegal.”

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at karilyde@aol.com.

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