A Bitter New Battle Over Partial-Birth Abortions

EVEN BY THE HEATED STANDARDS OF the abortion debate, the arguments last year over partial-birth abortions were remarkably emotional. Right-to-life groups and their congressional allies portrayed these procedures as ghastly events: late-term fetuses being extracted from the womb and killed. Pro-choice groups battled back with real-life tales of pregnant women opting for those procedures only in the most extreme circumstances. Congress voted to ban the operations. President Clinton vetoed the bill. Both sides returned to their corners to fight again.

The bell for round two is due to go off this week with another set of congressional hearings. They will feature Ron Fitzsimmons, until recently a relatively obscure figure in the abortion controversy. As executive director of the National Association of Abortion Providers, Fitzsimmons, who opposes the ban, represents more than 200 clinics. Last month a reporter for American Medical News, a weekly newspaper published by the American Medical Association, interviewed him about the proposed congressional ban. In the interview, published last week, Fitzsimmons claimed that abortion-rights advocates misled the public by talking primarily about the few hundred abortions performed in the last trimester rather than the thousands done between the 20th and 24th weeks of gestation. Focusing on third-trimester abortions distorted the issue, Fitzsimmons said, because they are rare and generally performed only if the fetus is not viable or the mother is in danger. Women who get this technique done earlier are more likely to be healthy, with healthy fetuses. ""The abortion-rights folks know it; the anti-abortion folks know itand so probably does everyone else,'' he told the newspaper.

But there the agreement ends. Right-to-life advocates call the procedure ""partial-birth,'' and abortion providers generally refer to it as dilation and extraction (D&X) or intact dilation and evacuation (D&E). It usually involves extracting a fetus, feet first, through the birth canal. Before delivering the head, the physician pierces the skull and suctions out the brain.

Fitzsimmons isn't the first or only person to question abortion-rights advocates' use of numbers. Pro-life advocates, such as Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, charge that pro-choice activists ""deliberately engendered confusion.'' And last year two newspapers--The Washington Post and The Record in New Jersey--iinterviewed doctors who reported per forming thousands of D&Es a year. But Fitzsimmons's charges, coming just before the hearings, sent pro-choice advocates scurrying. Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, says it was abortion opponents who initially emphasized the third trimester. They ""made allegations that women were having abortions in the seventh to ninth month for frivolous reasons on healthy babies,'' she says. Kathryn Kolbert, vice president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, says pro-choice groups had another reason for talking mostly about third-trimester abortions: the earlier abortions are protected by the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which says that legislatures cannot intervene before the fetus is able to live outside the womb, generally the 24th week.

Some doctors who perform abortions worry that the language of the proposed ban is so vague it could be used to prohibit any late abortion. The bill defines partial-birth as a procedure in which ""the person performing the abortion partially vaginally delivers a living fetus before killing the infant and completing the delivery.'' No fetal ages are specified.

Some pro-life activists concede that the ban probably wouldn't decrease abortions, since other methods, such as a modified C-section, would still be legal. But, says Joe Scheider of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, the debate has given his movement a much-needed boost, since many surveys show the majority of Americans are pro-choice. ""We are getting people who look at this abortion method and say, "If this is so bad, maybe we should look at the others','' he says. Whether or not it becomes law, he adds, ""it can become an educational tool.'' There's one lesson both sides can agree on: getting the message across is half the battle.

Most abortions are performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Abortiona after the 20th week are late-term.

Gestational 1992 Age Abortions 26 weeks 320 Total 1,528,930