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Court kills sound partial-birth bills

THE POINT at which life begins is hard to identify, especially from a legal standpoint. Abortion is one of the most contested issues of our time because people define the start of life differently -- at the time of conception, viability, or when the fetus is able to feel pain, for example. But however you define life, partial-birth abortions are cruel and unnecessary. Despite this, a federal appeals court ruled Friday that three state laws banning the procedure are unconstitutional, a significant blow to well-intentioned laws.

A partial-birth abortion works like this: A doctor pulls the fetus feet-first into the birth canal but leaves the head in the mother's cervix. Then the doctor punctures the base of the skull with surgical scissors or a hollow metal tube called a trochar. Next he inserts a tube into the hole and sucks the brain out, causing the skull to collapse, and then he completes delivery.

Not the first image that comes to mind when you think about abortion, is it? Even the American Medical Association supports legislation banning the procedure, calling it something they "agree is not good medicine" (www.nrlc.org/abortion/pba/keyfactspba.htm). But according to the AMA, it's a procedure that is performed in the United States an estimated 3,000 times annually.

The partial-birth abortion procedure isn't just brutal, it's also unnecessary -- except on rare occasions to save the mother's life. Over 90 percent of the time, this type of abortion is performed in the fifth and sixth months of pregnancy, and by the sixth month, the developing baby is usually "viable" -- its lungs are developed enough to sustain life outside the womb.

By this point, a woman has had enough time to terminate pregnancy. She could have taken emergency contraception pills, now widely available for minimal charge at Planned Parenthood and other health facilities, including Student Health at the University. If she didn't choose this option, she'd still have five months to realize she was pregnant and take the time to make an informed decision about what to do. But after five months, when the baby approaches the point of viability, it should be too late to abort.

The cruelty of this unnecessary procedure explains why laws have been passed banning it in Virginia and 29 other states. But in 18 states, including Virginia, pro-choice groups such as the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy and Planned Parenthood have appealed the laws, and federal court injunctions prevent them from being enforced. Congress passed a ban in 1998 but President Clinton vetoed it and the Senate failed to override that veto.

Last Friday, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional the state laws in Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska prohibiting partial-birth abortions. The judges explained that they felt the language in these laws -- which is almost identical to that of the law pending in Congress -- was too vague and potentially could encompass other abortion procedures.

The ruling likely will affect Missouri's new Infant's Protection Act, which classifies "infanticide" as a felony crime. If a doctor kills an infant when it is born or partially born, both doctor and mother can be held criminally responsible. This bill is on the right track, using the applicable term "infanticide" to criminalize the torture and murder of an infant. Phrasing a law that can't be challenged in court is difficult, but the Missouri legislature should be applauded for trying this new approach.

Opponents of the bills outlawing partial-birth abortion support the federal appeals court's decision. According to the Washington Post, Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproduction Rights Action League, said that the ruling proves that authors of the bills were trying, through vague wording, to overturn Roe v. Wade ("Laws Banning Type of Late-Term Abortion Rejected," Sept. 25).

In fact, the laws show that every attempt was made to be as specific as possible, outlawing only this one procedure. The AMA says it supports the federal bill because it "clearly define[s] the prohibited procedure so that it is clear on the face of the legislation what act is to be banned" (www.nrlc.org/abortion/pba/amaletter.html). There's no evidence from states where the ban is in place that it is being applied to other abortion procedures, and so opponents have no reason to twist the authors' intent.

It's a tragedy that thousands of fetuses are killed yearly -- when they are viable or nearly viable -- by a scissors-stabbing, brain-sucking procedure. What's worse is that paranoia is overtaking common sense as state bills are appealed, and in this case, overturned. Diligent lawmakers shouldn't give up in their attempts to make sound and specific bills that will withstand the test of courts. They must persevere until the horrific partial-birth abortion procedure is outlawed nationwide.

(Jennifer Schaum is a Cavalier Daily associate editor.)

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