by Lisa Bennett-Haigney
A womans medical treatment became public domain again this fall as both houses of Congress passed a bill to ban a rare, late-term abortion procedure called dilation and extraction, or D&X, needed in the most tragic of circumstances.
Activists gathered in a cold rain at the Supreme Court on Nov. 7 to protest this attempt to chip away at Roe v. Wade. "This is a vicious and cynical piece of an overriding strategy to criminalize abortion in this country," said NOW Action Vice President Rosemary Dempsey.
Dempsey says the bill is a tragedy not only because it criminalizes an abortion procedure for the first time since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, but also because it attacks a procedure that occurs at "such a sad time in the lives of women and men, mothers and fathers." The ban will subject a doctor to criminal prosecution, even if the procedure is the best medical option to preserve the womans health and her future ability to have children.
A mother from Illinois spoke movingly of her own painful D&X abortion decision, and then denounced what the bills sponsors were legislating. Vikki Stella said the son she was expecting had no brain and multiple deformations of the spine, hands and feet. "I need Congress and the Senate out of my doctor's office and out of my private life," she said.
The D&X procedure allows the delivery of an intact fetus, so that grieving parents like Vikki and her husband can dress it, hold it, and mourn their loss with family and friends in an open-casket funeral. Other procedures, which remain legal, do not allow this small consolation and may also be more dangerous for the woman's health.
Picking up on the message of signs activists carried at the demonstration, Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., urged Congress to "stop practicing medicine without a license." NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy called the bill "mandated medical malpractice."
The House of Representatives passed the bill 288-139 with no formal hearings and a debate tightly controlled by the right wing. Capitalizing on that momentum, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., hastily brought the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. After first sending the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee for hearings, followed by four days of emotionally charged debate, the Senate passed the bill by a notably closer margin of 54-44.
In both the House and Senate, supporters of the bill used an onslaught of pressure to pass this tenet of the Christian Coalition's Contract With the American Family. Some politicians made the broader right wing agenda unabashedly clear. "We will begin to focus on the methods [of abortion] and declare them to be illegal," vowed Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.
The right wing's tactics to sway moderate votes included what Dempsey called a "campaign of total misinformation" and an effort to "appeal to people's emotions by lying to them." Abortion foes created and repeatedly reinforced the term "partial birth abortion," which was picked up and used by the news media despite the fact that it does not exist in medical usage.
Abortion foes in Congress repeatedly displayed misleading graphi illustrations of the procedure that depict scissors stabbing a healthy near-term fetus. These false depictions obscure many realities, most importantly the woman and family preparing to bring a baby into their lives, who are unexpectedly faced with the painful necessity of this procedure.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., reminded her colleagues of the heartbreaking individual stories behind the debate. "A mother's face is not pictured on these charts . . . I don't have a chart to show you they were devastated," she said.
The drawings omit the fact that this abortion method is only used in medically serious circumstances, when the woman's life or health is gravely at risk or the fetus suffers from extreme abnormalities inconsistent with life. Stella, who is expecting a healthy baby in December, traveled to Washington from Illinois to tell her personal story again, this time before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She called the decision to abort her pregnancy "the most personal, tragic episode of my life" but a decision that was necessary under the circumstances.
The Senate narrowly rejected an amendment proposed by Sen. Boxer that would have provided an exception to the ban when necessary to "preserve the life of the woman or avert serious adverse health consequences to the woman." An amendment proposed by Sen. Dole and the bill's sponsor, Sen. Robert C. Smith, R-N.H., was approved 98-0.
The amendment permits use of the D&X procedure only when the mother's life is "endangered by a physical disorder, illness, or injury, provided that no other medical procedure would suffice for that purpose." In other words, if a different type of abortion procedure would endanger the woman's health, but not her life, then the doctor would still be required to use the other procedure.
Boxer and other abortion rights advocates are concerned that the Dole/Smith "life" amendment does not leave room for the best medical judgment of the attending physician and may still effectively reduce the number of doctors willing to perform late term abortions. The House version of the bill included no exemptions, and the bill next moved into conference for the two houses to reconcile the legislation.
The medical community actively opposed this intrusion by Congress into critical decision-making by physicians. Opposition came from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Women's Association, the California Medical Association, the National Association of Nurse Practitioners and countless professionals. Less than 1 percent of legal abortions are performed during the third trimester of pregnancy, and although disputable data abounds, the National Abortion Federation estimates that there are about 450 abortions annually using this method.
"We were not elected to be doctors . . . to be God," Sen. Boxer said on the Senate floor. "This is bringing politics into the operating room." Dempsey said any member of Congress who voted for the ban cannot be considered an abortion rights supporter by NOW, a factor necessary for receiving the endorsement and support of this organization.
On Dec. 4 NOW and other women's and abortion rights groups met with White House staff to stress the importance of defeating this bill and to press for a veto commitment from President Clinton. A subsequent statement issued by the White House said that President Clinton's legal counsel would recommend that he veto the bill if it failed to provide an exemption for the life and health of the women.
This is not the end of attacks on this and other abortion procedures. Ohio has already passed a D&X ban, and supporters have vowed to pass it state by state, and then return to Congress for a federal ban next year.
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