Joan Malin

New York (WOMENSENEWS)–Women are days away from losing their right to end pregnancies–not just pregnancies in their seventh, eighth and ninth months, as many
believe–but pregnancies from 13 weeks onward.

The House passed a federal ban last week on so-called “partial-birth abortion.” The Senate has approved a similar ban and President Bush has promised he will sign the new version of the bill.

Anti-Choice Activists Mislead Public

Despite the vast reach of the ban, the public debate about it has been dangerously misleading. Anti-choice proponents for the ban describe a precise, limited and late-term prohibition. In fact, third trimester abortions are already illegal across the United States unless the health or life of the mother is at risk. What this ban really does is outlaw safe procedures that doctors commonly use in the second trimester, well before fetal viability. When it is enacted, the new federal law will endanger women’s health and could send doctors to prison for up to two years for providing safe abortions.

The critical danger of this bill is that it contains no medical definition of what it is outlawing. Doctors and women who want to know what is and will be legal will be hard pressed to find an answer in the actual legislation. The ban is written so that it could apply to any number of procedures in the second or third term of pregnancy. In fact, the ban contains no “real-life” medical terms (such as “dilation and evacuation,” “dilation and extraction,” or “induction”) from medical dictionaries. Instead, the ban uses misleading terminology such as “partial-birth abortion” which refers to no existing medical procedure.

Because of this, once the ban becomes law, physicians will not know what abortion procedures are illegal since there are no medically accurate terms included in the bill. Its vagueness threatens to make it a catchall ban on any abortion a doctor could reasonably believe might be illegal.

Ban Contains No Health Exception

In addition, this abortion ban contains absolutely no exception for a woman’s health.

When the ban becomes law, a woman who may suffer stroke or renal failure or diabetes if she continues her pregnancy–any scenario short of death–will have no options. If the safest abortion method to protect her becomes illegal by this ban, she will have been barred–by President Bush and Congress–from getting health-saving care.

This ban is so broad and dangerous to women’s health that Planned Parenthood and other organizations will file lawsuits against it the moment it is signed. These legal actions are likely to protect women temporarily as litigation continues toward final resolution by the Supreme Court.

Up to now the Supreme Court has said that a ban that endangers women’s health is unconstitutional. Most recently, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cast the deciding vote three years ago in Stenberg v. Carhart. The Court found that a state bill nearly identical to this ban was unconstitutional because it did not safeguard women’s health and was so vaguely defined.

Rumors persist that O’Connor may retire this summer, thus energizing abortion opponents aware that this bill has the same flaws that swayed O’Connor to vote against it. Justice John Paul Stevens, now 83, also voted against the early “partial birth abortion” law and he also may retire. Abortion opponents now have reason to believe that by the time challenges to the ban by Planned Parenthood and others are placed on the Supreme Court’s docket, abortion rights could be in grave jeopardy.

If Congress outlawed any other medically necessary and appropriate procedure, such as heart surgery, the danger of having Congress in the doctor’s office would be obvious. Clearly in all cases women and doctors–not politicians–must be able to choose the safest medical treatment from all available options.

Joan Malin is chief executive officer and president of Planned Parenthood of New York City. Before joining Planned Parenthood of New York City in 2000, Ms. Malin served in New York City government as commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services and as executive director of the Bowery Residents’ Committee.

For more information:

Also see Women’s eNews, April 1, 2001:
“Confusion Surrounds ‘Partial Birth Abortion'”:

Planned Parenthood of New York City:

The Library of Congress–search “abortion”: