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Panel OKs partial-birth ban; opponents defend procedure

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act cleared a House of Representatives committee March 12, a day after officials of some of the country’s leading abortion rights organizations denied they intentionally had provided misleading information in order to protect the gruesome procedure from being outlawed.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the measure in a 20-11 vote along party lines, with Republicans favoring the ban. A floor vote in the House is expected about March 20. While the bill appears certain of passage, a two-thirds majority desired by the legislation’s supporters seems unsure. A two-thirds vote will be required to override an anticipated veto by President Clinton, whose veto last year was upheld in the Senate.

The early committee action in this Congress followed by only two weeks the admission by the head of a national abortion advocacy organization he had lied about the frequency of and reasons for partial-birth abortions.

Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, told American Medical News and other publications what opponents of partial-birth abortion have been saying for some time: The grisly procedure done in the second half of pregnancy is not as rare as abortion advocates claim and is not performed primarily on women whose lives or fertility are threatened or whose unborn babies are damaged. Instead, Fitzsimmons admitted, the procedure is much more commonly performed than the 500 times annually abortion advocates have said and mostly on healthy women with healthy children.

“The abortion rights folks know it; the anti-abortion folks know it and so, probably, does everyone else,” Fitzsimmons said in the March 3 issue of American Medical News. “The pro-choice movement has lost a lot of credibility during this debate, not just with the general public, but with our pro-choice friends in Congress. I think we should tell them the truth, let them vote and move on.”

The number of partial-birth abortions performed annually nationwide now is estimated to be at least 3,000 to 5,000.

Representatives from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, National Abortion Federation and Fitzsimmons’ own organization were not as willing as Fitzsimmons to turn things over to Congress when they appeared March 11 at a joint hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Judiciary Committee’s Constitution Subcommittee.

In the face of such a confession from an ally, they, as well as some congressional Democrats at the sometimes-emotional hearing, defended their tactics and opposition to the bill in the following ways:

— No one knows how many of these procedures are done and, regardless, they amount to far less than 1 percent of all abortions.

— Information from abortion rights organizations was issued in response to mistaken statements by bill supporters about the procedure being done mostly on babies able to survive outside the womb or in the last trimester of pregnancy.

— Congress should not practice medicine but should allow physicians to use the method if they deem it the safest for women in dire circumstances.

— The ban is unconstitutional.

None of the four pro-choice witnesses admitted she had purposely distorted the facts. At times, some of them, including Renee Chelian, president of the organization Fitzsimmons directs, deftly avoided directly answering questions about whether they agreed with Fitzsimmons’ assertions the procedure is used more often than 500 times a year and most partial-birth abortions are done on healthy women with healthy children.

A partial-birth abortion involves the delivery of an intact baby feet first until only the head is left in the birth canal. The doctor pierces the base of the baby’s skull with surgical scissors, then inserts a catheter into the opening and suctions out the brain. The collapse of the skull enables easier removal of the dead child. The method is used in the second half of pregnancy, usually by the 26th week.

Vicki Saporta, the National Abortion Federation’s executive director, said her organization made an estimate of 500 annual partial-birth abortions when congressional staff requested a total in June 1995.

“This estimate represented our good faith effort to respond to these inquiries based on the best information we had at the time,” Saporta said. News reports in the fall of 1996 suggested the total “was higher than we originally estimated,” she said. “As a result, we attempted to obtain a revised estimate. We concluded that this task was impossible.”

When Sen. Jeff Sessions, R.-Ala., asked if any of the four would deny the number of partial-birth abortions is in the thousands yearly, Saporta said, “Yes.” The exact number is unknown, she said.

Doug Johnson, the National Right to Life Committee’s legislative director, said as recently as Feb. 25 the National Abortion Federation’s Internet web site said the procedure is performed only about 500 times a year “most often when there is a severe fetal anomaly or maternal health problem detected late in pregnancy.”

Saporta said NAF had removed that description last fall but a Feb. 24 systems failure had caused the old information to return to the web site.

Her explanation “isn’t plausible,” said Johnson, one of two pro-life witnesses on the main panel. He had downloaded the NAF information every month for at least five months, including Jan. 21, and the description was unchanged, Johnson said.

The latest estimate of up to 5,000 partial-birth abortions a year is a minimum, Johnson said. “We still don’t know how much of the iceberg we’re seeing,” he said. “And these groups did not say that they were just talking about third-trimester or post-viability procedures.”

Some congressional ban supporters expressed regret opponents minimized the procedure because of the small percentage of abortions in which it is used.

“A million and a half abortions a year is some record,” Rep. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., said of the total performed nationwide, “but 5,000 is some record too. Five thousand lives are not insignificant.”

The number of and reasons for partial-birth abortion “may be irrelevant today to you,” Rep. Ed Bryant, R.-Tenn., told the four pro-choice witnesses, “but they were relevant last year.”

“Congress was lied to.”

Though no pro-choice witness at the hearing endorsed Fitzsimmons’ assertions, the potential repercussions from his confession are significant. Some major news media outlets, including the television networks, have parroted the abortion advocates’ lines about the procedure. President Clinton and members of Congress have as well. The president vetoed last year a bill to ban the procedure except when the mother’s life is endangered.

Clinton vetoed the bill in April, citing a need for an exception when the mother’s health is endangered. For the veto ceremony, he gathered five women who said they had undergone the procedure for health reasons and/or because their children would not have survived. Bill supporters, however, said the president’s health exception would gut the ban, because the Supreme Court in 1973 defined health for abortion purposes to include “all factors — physical, emotional, psychological, familial and the woman’s age — relevant to the well-being of the patient.”

In September, the House of Representatives achieved the two-thirds majority necessary for an override with a 285-137 vote. The Senate fell short at 57-41.

While it is unknown how many partial-birth abortions are performed each year, a Sept. 15, 1996, article in The Record, a New Jersey daily paper, reported a clinic in Englewood, N.J., performs at least 1,500 partial-birth abortions a year.

The House version of the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act is H.R. 929. In the Senate, it is S. 6.