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Editorial: Partial-birth abortion ban awaits signature

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

When President Bush signs into law the ban on partial-birth abortions, it will be a historical milestone. The ban will be the first federal law prohibiting an abortion procedure since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

Opponents of the bill, headed to Bush's desk after it won Senate approval in March and House backing June 4, say it is only the first of many blows to Roe v. Wade and argue it is now only a matter of time until all abortion rights are dismantled.

That would only be true if certain things happen: a shift in public opinion, a transition to a less divided U.S. Supreme Court and a pro-life president remains in the White House.

Granted, some of those things are happening. Public sentiment is slowly changing. Some 30 states have tried to enact similar partial-birth abortion bans. Some moderate Democrats already have joined Republicans in supporting the partial-birth measure. Those things show a slight change in the way people perceive abortion.

Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor, two of the five who have voted to strike down a similar state law, are thought to be likely to retire in the near future.

Those are developments to consider in the future. For right now, it is only the merits of this bill that are important. Congress and President Bush are correct about partial-birth abortions, which should never be allowed.

The procedure, medically known as "intact dilation and extraction," is horrid and inhumane, requiring that a baby that has reached the second trimester -- meaning it is often viable -- be killed after the fetal head is outside the body of the mother. The procedure involves puncturing the skull, which kills the partially delivered fetus.

Opponents of the new law say they don't like the fact that the bill doesn't have an exemption for the health of the mother. But backers of this new bill realize that the health exception would only be a major loophole, allowing abortions even when the mental health of the mother is in question.

Opponents of the new law also say the procedure is rare, suggestion it is unworthy of the effort it has taken to prohibit it. Don't be fooled. Partial-birth abortions happen. The number of partial-birth abortions performed annually in the United States is estimated at 2,200 to 5,000 -- out of 1.3 million total abortions.

That's way too many, especially considering that a majority in Congress believe that it is never medically necessary.

Congress and the president are on the right track. It is a fight that is far from over, however. There will be legal challenges from pro-choice groups, and the issue will likely go to the Supreme Court, which is deeply divided. In a Nebraska case, the Supreme Court struck down a similar bill, citing a lack of a health exception for the life of the mother.

Supporters believe this new bill leaps over those hurdles.

President Bush says the bill "will help build a culture of life in America." By not allowing this procedure to happen, he's right.


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