Critics denounce abortion bill as arbitrary, simplistic

by Tim Mosso | 10/28/03 6:00am

President Bush is expected to sign into law the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, following the bill's approval by the Senate on Oct. 21 and by the House earlier this month, to the dismay of abortion rights supporters.

Chairman of Dartmouth College's religion department, Ronald Green, a bio-ethicist, denounced the ban and called it a political device. Green has testified before the Subcommittee on the Judiciary of the House on the subject of late-term abortions. "Sometimes, you have to draw lines -- for the sake of public policy. While the child is still inside the mother, it is not a citizen," Green said.

Green added that certain vital information about the fetus is often unknown until later in the pregnancy. "Some of these [abortions] are performed because the information about the child's deformity is learned late in the pregnancy," Green said.

The bill, which prohibits the abortion operation commonly known as "partial-birth abortion" and medically termed "intact dilation and extraction," has passed both houses with a degree of bipartisan support. In the Senate, 17 Democrats joined all but three Republicans in voting in favor of the bill. However, medical opinions on the subject are not unanimous.

One practicing obstetrician-gynecologist, who asked not to be named, called the language of the bill simplistic. "It sounds like a lay and arbitrary definition," he said. "There are a lot of anomalies that are not picked up until late in the pregnancy," he said.

He identified conditions such as Hydrocephalus, Acephalus and Potter's Syndrome that may not be detected until after the fetus has extensively developed. These conditions involve excessive fluid in the fetal head, a lack of a head or a brain, and a lack of functioning kidneys, respectively. All of these conditions are generally fatal. The physician argued that the mother should not have to carry and naturally deliver a doomed fetus. "The mother knows she is carrying a baby that is not going to make it," he said.

Leonard Morse, MD, chair of the American Medical Association's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs was quoted in an article on -- the online news branch of the AMA -- as an opponent of attempts to implement a legal ban on the procedure.

"The practice of medicine is done by licensed people who have to be unencumbered in emergency situations," Morse said. "If they feel they have to perform certain procedures to save the life of the mother, they should be allowed to exercise their judgment. It's a very rare situation, but if the situation should arise, I don't think the doctor should be encumbered," he said.

Opposing the so called partial-birth abortion procedure, Father Brendan Buckley, a Catholic priest and Director of Aquinas House, argued that the partial-birth abortion ban accurately interprets current medical realities. "I don't believe that the two [lives of fetus and mother] are in conflict almost ever anymore," Buckley said. He added, "One [life] is never greater than the other, they are both equals."

Father Buckley said that procedures such as intact dilation and extraction are incompatible with both the spirit of the medical profession and Catholicism. "It is a very clean definition of the value of human life that medicine is supposed to enhance, not attack," he said.

Buckley was also adamant about the right of deformed or retarded fetuses to be given a chance, even in cases where the defects are severe. "It [the fetus] is a human being with all the value of a human being."

A partial-birth abortion ban has advanced to the presidential desk three times since 1995. The first two iterations of the bill were vetoed by President Bill Clinton on the grounds that they did not provide exceptions to preserve the health of the mother. A Nebraska State Ban on intact dilation and extraction operations was rejected by the United States Supreme Court in Steinberg v Carhart in 2000 on the grounds that no exceptions were provided for cases that endangered the health of the mother.

The current national bill allows doctors accused of performing the procedure to "seek a hearing before the State Medical Board on whether the physician's conduct was necessary to save the life of the mother whose life was endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself."