Chipping Away at Roe

Chipping Away at Roe

Congress has once again passed a bill banning “partial-birth abortion.” It’s not the first time. President Clinton vetoed similar bans in 1996 and 1997.


Congress has once again passed a bill banning “partial-birth abortion.” It’s not the first time. President Clinton vetoed similar bans in 1996 and 1997. In 2000 the Supreme Court struck down a similar law passed in Nebraska, in Stenberg v. Carhart. Now, however, antiabortion forces have struck paydirt–because this President will sign it.

Many see passage of the bill as a minor defeat, prohibiting the use of a single procedure that many view as troubling. In fact, it marks at least a temporary win in a right-wing disinformation strategy. Just as the WMD mantra was used to short-circuit debate over the “pre-emptive” war, so too has “partial-birth abortion” been used to divert attention from an eight-year campaign to render Roe hollow.

The term “partial-birth abortion” is invented and nonsensical, with no medical meaning. Rather than banning only abortions performed late in pregnancy using one specific method–dilation and extraction–as proponents claim, the bill, because its language is so broad, would outlaw many abortion procedures performed throughout the second trimester, long before fetal viability.

Many physicians who provide abortions brave picketers, harassment, violence and even death threats. Now Congress has tacked on the risk of two years in prison, just like the bad old days before Roe. Already, nearly 90 percent of US counties lack a single abortion provider. This bill could aggravate this severe dearth and further reduce abortion access.

The Roe decision–as reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in Carhart–laid out a framework in which a woman and her doctor decide about abortion based on her right to privacy and bodily integrity, with the state empowered to block abortions only after fetal viability and only if doing so would not compromise the woman’s life or health. Protection of the woman’s health was defined as primary, at all stages of her pregnancy. With this bill, Congress restricts a woman’s medical options, endangering her health, overriding her doctor’s judgment and defying the fundamental precepts of Roe.

Congress is also defying the constitutional system of separation of powers. Since 1995 thirty-one states have enacted bans on “partial-birth abortion.” Because the broad language criminalizes commonly used safe procedures and thus interferes with a woman’s right to choose, and because of the lack of a health exception, the bans were overturned in twenty-one states and struck down by the Supreme Court in Carhart. The current bill repeats these errors in open disregard for that decision, presumably in anticipation that new appointments will reverse the Court’s five-to-four split, in the anti-Roe direction.

The media have played along with the right on this issue, adopting the propagandistic term “partial-birth abortion” and contributing to the misapprehension that the bill would ban only a single procedure. Polls indicate that Americans have indeed been misinformed and that when presented with the facts, they want doctors to be able to provide the best care to women. In the three states where bans landed on the ballot, voters rejected them.

Too many in organized medicine decided that getting Congressional support for liability protections was their top priority and thus were unwilling to come out in front to oppose this deceptive bill. Yet the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 so violates the doctor-patient relationship, respect for science and the value of women’s lives and health that organized medicine should fight hard against this threat. Civil liberties groups realized early on that this maneuvering was not solely about abortion but was one more example of the right’s efforts to circumvent the democratic process. Other sectors must appreciate the scale of this assault.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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