Tammy Watts and her daughter Savvy

(WOMENSENEWS)–Tammy Watts sat and seethed.

Perched on the edge of her couch in Queen Creek, Ariz., she could barely contain her frustration as she watched the last two presidential debates.

When President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry discussed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, Watts clenched her fists.

When Bush used the term “partial-birth abortion” and called it a “brutal practice,” she buried her head in her hands.

Unlike many American voters, Watts knows that “partial-birth abortion” does not exist. Coined by anti-choice activists, this term cannot be found in any medical dictionary. Its imprecision, according to defenders of choice, could target a whole host of procedures.

In political forums like the presidential debates, this catchphrase has worked its way into usage and is widely assumed to mean late-term abortions, that is, those occuring in the last three months. Though Bush calls these procedures “brutal,” they maybe necessary to save the lives of women such as Watts, whose pregnancy entailed a rare complication.

“This ban threatens the lives of women who need emergency procedures,” says Watts. “It’s also so vaguely-worded that it could be used to outlaw any type of abortion.”

Late-Term Abortions Save Women’s Lives

If the ban were in place in 1995, Tammy Watts would likely be dead, she says.

In March of that year, Watts was in the eighth month of a much-wanted pregnancy and was eagerly anticipating the birth of her first child. During a routine ultrasound (the only way to detect abnormalities that require late-term abortion), she discovered her baby had Trisomy 13, a chromosomal abnormality that causes severe deformities and carries no hope of survival.

Because her baby was already dying and because this put her own life at stake, Watts had an intact dilation and extraction (D and X), the procedure that Bush condemns as “brutal.”

“Losing my baby at the end of my pregnancy was agonizing,” says Watts. “But the way the right deals with this issue makes it even worse. When I heard Bush mention ‘partial birth abortion’ during the debates, I thought ‘How dare you stand there and tell flat-out lies?’ There is no such thing as this procedure! Why won’t the politicians listen to us?”

Watts and other women affected by this issue have tried to make legislators listen.

Testimony on Capitol Hill

When Congress first considered the ban in 1995, Watts testified on Capitol Hill. So did Viki Wilson of Fresno, Calif., who had a late-term abortion because the brain of the fetus she was carrying had developed outside the skull. So did Vikki Stella of Naperville, Ill., whose fetus had dwarfism, no brain tissue and seven other major abnormalities.

All three women told legislators they owed their health to late-term abortions and that a continuation of their doomed pregnancies posed grave health risks such as stroke, paralysis, infertility or even death.

As they campaign to save access to these procedures, Watts, Stella and Wilson point out that in virtually all cases, late-term abortions are the only way to respond to unanticipated complications: the death of the fetus inside the womb, problems that mean the fetus can’t live outside the womb, or serious threats to the mother’s health.

“No women has these procedures for frivolous reasons,” says Stella. “They have them because it’s their only choice.”

In its Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court acknowledged this fact, giving states permission to regulate–or even proscribe–terminations of pregnancies except “where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”

Watts, Stella and Wilson note that late-term abortions are sanctioned by many medical professional groups. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Washington, D.C., calls intact D and X–a commonly used late-term procedure–“the most appropriate and safest” option in some cases. The American Nurses Association, Silver Spring, Md., and the American Medical Women’s Association, Alexandria, Va., also approve the practice.

Pro-choice advocates also note that despite all the political hoopla, intact D and X procedures are very rare, accounting for only 2,200 of the 1 million U.S. abortions performed each year.

When Congress approved the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in October 2003–and when Bush signed it into law in November–Watts, Stella and Wilson were horrified.

Relief came immediately with court injunctions. This summer federal judges in California, Nebraska and New York all ruled the ban unconstitutional because it contradicts a Supreme Court decision that rejected similar legislation in 2000.

Bush Battling to Ban Late-Term Abortions

Now, with Bush pledging to “vigorously defend” the ban, Watts, Stella and Wilson are throwing their support behind John Kerry, who has criticized the ban because it “fails to make a clear exception” for the health of women.

The Supreme Court (which remains pro-choice by a narrow 5-4 margin) may rule on the constitutionality of the ban this winter or next spring. Since three of the court’s nine justices are rumored to be nearing retirement–and since the president appoints Supreme Court justices–the fate of all abortion laws will rest on the judicial appointments of the next commander-in-chief.

If the ban is ruled constitutional by the High Court, it could conceivably be used to outlaw most abortions performed after the first 12 weeks, at a minimum, make obtaining a legal, safe abortion that much more difficult.

The ban doesn’t mention any known medical procedure, it does prohibit any “overt act” to “kill the partially-delivered living fetus.” Anti-choice advocates claims this is a reference to intact D and X, which requires removing the fetus from the womb and sometimes collapsing the skull. Pro-choice activists fear this wording could be used to apply not only to intact D and X but also to dilation and evacuation (another late-term procedure, in which the fetus is removed in one piece) as well as any abortion performed past 12 weeks.

“Because the ban outlaws an undefined range of techniques, doctors can hardly know if what they are doing is illegal or not,” says Gloria Feldt, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Fate of Ban Hinges on the Election

During the final stretch of the presidential campaign, women who support the right to late-term abortions will continue battling for their cause. Wilson will keep working as a nurse at her local Planned Parenthood. Stella will continue campaigning for a local pro-choice politician. And Watts will keep speaking out at pro-choice rallies.

They say they must be vocal because pro-choice politicians have failed them. Many liberal legislators bowed to conservative pressure and voted for the ban in Congress. Even Kerry–who voted against the ban and has consistently supported abortion rights–has failed to publicly correct Bush for using the misnomer “partial birth abortion.”

“When it comes to this issue, politicians who might otherwise not be anti-choice pander to anti-choice interests because they want to win,” says Feldt. “The anti-choice majority delivers a solid block of votes–and a big pile of cash–to whoever adopts its agenda.”

This week, the agenda for Watts, Wilson and Stella will be getting the word out. “We must fight to keep late-term abortions legal,” says Stella. “If we don’t, innocent women will die.”

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.

For more information

Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003:
Go to http://thomas.loc.gov/ and type “Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act” in the search engine