The "D&E" Ban and the Fight For Choice

Revolutionary Worker #906, May 11, 1997

For nearly two years anti-abortion forces have been trying to outlaw a particular medical procedure used to perform late term abortions. Last year in Congress, the House and Senate passed a bill to ban "intact dilation and extraction" abortions. This bill would ban all abortion procedures where the fetus enters the birth canal while still alive. Clinton vetoed the bill because while it included an exception where a woman's life is in danger, it didn't include an exception in cases where a woman's general health is at risk.

Now, this year, the same bill has been put before Congress. The House has already passed it, the Senate is expected to pass it in May, and backers of the bill are hoping they will have enough votes to override a veto by Clinton.

The bill would impose on the doctor who performs an intact d&e a maximum penalty of $250,000 in fines and two years in prison. It would hold anyone liable who assisted in the procedure. And it would allow the man involved in the pregnancy to sue a woman who has the procedure, if he is married to her. If this ban becomes law it will have devastating consequences on women's lives. It will be the first time Congress has ever criminalized a specific medical procedure. It will mean many more women will be denied abortions they want and need.

The anti-abortion movement wants to use this campaign against late term abortions to spread disinformation and inflame the debate in order to create public opinion against abortion in general. In this sense, the fight to stop this ban is not just about a particular procedure. It is a struggle to stop further and significant practical, political, ideological and legal attacks on the right to choose.

The arguments behind the ban are based on lies and anti-scientific thought. The anti-abortion movement is doing everything it can to cover up the truth that a fetus is NOT a baby and that abortion (using any procedure) is NOT murder. They falsely call the intact d&e procedure a "partial birth" and present misleading drawings, huge photos of full-term babies and hysterical rhetoric to push the lie that "every abortion is the murder of a baby" and that in this procedure a "baby is killed" when it is "three inches from life." They accuse doctors of performing this procedure to make lots of money; they accuse women of having such abortions "in order to fit into a prom dress" or because having a child will be "inconvenient." Staten Island (NYC) Borough President Guy Molinari reflected the rabid arguments of the anti-abortion movement when he made a public call for the "d&e" procedure to be outlawed, saying that doctors who perform it should be executed "in the same manner they kill the babies."

The anti-abortion movement sees this ban as a step in their efforts to completely gut, if not overturn, Roe v. Wade. In fact, a ban on intact d&e would open up the door to outlawing not only specific abortion procedures, but a whole range of access to abortion. And such a federal ban would give a green light to proposed state laws that are even stricter. South Carolina is trying to make intact d&e a homicide, with life in prison for the doctor. Ohio has made it a felony. Georgia gives a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison and includes those who "assist" with the procedure. Mississippi gives a $25,000 fine.

If this ban becomes law, there will be a legal precedent such that many doctors will be wondering whether they could be arrested for many similar procedures. And some people have pointed out that the vague and non-medical language of the ban could lead to the prosecution of doctors for performing any abortion after the first trimester. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (the main professional organization of doctors in the field), "the definitions [in the bill] could be interpreted to include elements of many recognized abortion and operative obstetric techniques." The intent of the law, says the ACLU, "is to chill doctors from performing any one of several abortion methods commonly used after the first trimester of pregnancy." One doctor interviewed by the New York Times who does late term abortions said, "This [procedure] is not something I rely on, but I find it absolutely bizarre that Congress wants to ban it. In my view, it's as if they were to forbid me to use a certain kind of suture." The passage of these laws may stop doctors from performing many procedures they have been doing routinely, even if they're not yet clearly prohibited. And in many cases, it will lead to doctors making decisions based on avoiding procedures that may get them arrested--not on what is the best medical procedure for their patient.

No Compromise,
Women's Lives Are at Stake

Hearings before Congress have revealed how devastating this ban would be to women's lives. Several pro-choice organizations, led by the National Abortion Federation, brought women who had intact d&e abortions to testify before Congress. These women described the details of their third trimester abortions, done because of untreatable fetal problems, and explained why those procedures had been absolutely necessary in their lives. Doctors also testified about how this procedure has been necessary to ensure the future fertility of a woman and how they have used it to help women who need late term abortions. No major medical organization supports this ban and many medical groups spoke out against it.

Recently, the anti-abortion movement has been trying to focus on the fact that intact d&e is used during the second trimester of pregnancy, in cases where the fetus is normal and the health of the woman is not at risk. They argue that it is "morally wrong" for a woman to use this procedure, not to save her own life, or because the fetus is deformed, but because her doctor decides it's the best way for her abortion to be done.

While there is no record of exactly how many abortions are done using intact d&e, it is true that this procedure is not "rare" as some pro-choice people have stated in the past. But the argument over how many intact d&e abortions are done is a bogus argument that's part of the arsenal of the anti-abortion movement. It leads away from the real issue at hand--which is a woman's right to choose. There is nothing wrong with a woman getting an abortion for any reason. And there is nothing wrong with her doctor deciding to use whatever procedure is necessary to make the best medical choice in giving her an abortion.

If a woman decides, at any time during a pregnancy, that she cannot and does not want to continue it, that must be HER decision, and she should be supported in it. This is because, as Mary Lou Greenberg says, "Attempts by society to forcibly regulate reproduction are oppressive to women. The overall physical and social well-being of women must take priority over fetuses, and women must be allowed to make their own reproductive decisions. This is a question of women's health. But even more, it is a question of women's right to function fully in society."

Some people have argued that the pro-choice movement should compromise on this issue. They agree with Bill Clinton that it is alright to ban intact d&e procedures in cases where a woman's life and general health are not in danger. (Clinton has said he would sign a ban if it included such exceptions) This position reflects Clinton's view that abortion should be "legal but rare." Some people think this position is "pro-choice." But in reality it is not and helps to spread the anti-choice view that abortion is wrong and that women should apologize for terminating an unwanted pregnancy.

No matter how far along a pregnancy is, a fetus does not become a baby until it is born, and abortion, no matter how late, is not murder. This is why there is nothing wrong whatsoever with women choosing to end a pregnancy for whatever reason and using medical procedures like intact d&e for late term abortions.

Some people have even argued that the pro-choice movement should concede to the antis on this issue. They say the pro-choice movement can't win this round because the antis have successfully created an emotional debate where many people think that this procedure is the "murder of babies." But the stakes of this battle are very high--women's very lives are at stake. Such a ban would represent a further "eating away" at the right to choose. And the pro-choice movement has a responsibility to educate people, combat all the lies and tell people the truth! The struggle around late term abortions can actually be an opportunity to go on the offensive, raise the level of debate and understanding so that more people understand why fetuses are NOT children, abortion is NOT murder, and women are NOT incubators.

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