The Abortion Divide

THE recent House and Senate debate over whether to ban a rarely used abortion procedure shows that the most extreme views on both sides still dominate.

Extreme abortion opponents believe life begins at conception and any abortion is therefore murder. Extreme advocates of legal abortion say a woman should have a right to abort at any time in a pregnancy. Public-opinion polling, however, says most Americans hold a position somewhere in between.

Both sides have proved themselves effective - and shameless - at parading around grisly photographs, which is to inflame emotion, not encourage rational discussion. This most recent debate has been a glaring example.

We respect the sincerity of those who oppose any abortion on moral grounds. Their motive is to protect human life, not to enslave women. At the same time, however, those who advocate legal abortion are not therefore immoral, and most do not advocate it glibly. The debate would be far more constructive if each side would stop drawing caricatures of the other.

Abortion is a tragedy; there are far too many in the US today. But for some women in some cases it's a sad but necessary choice. The Supreme Court made the right decision in its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which at least ensured women would have access to medically safe procedures. The court has upheld that decision but has allowed some restrictions around the edges: The federal, state, and local governments are not required to fund abortions for poor women except in some "medically necessary" cases. States may require minor girls to obtain permission of a parent or judge to get an abortion. A 24-hour waiting period also is permissible. And states can bar public facilities and employees from performing the procedure.

We agree with Roe v. Wade, not because we favor abortion, but because we strongly believe that governments have no business interfering in private heath-care decisions, including choice of treatment.

For most Americans, that means a woman and her health-care provider should make decisions based on her health needs and best interests. (Ideally, the father should be involved in the discussion when possible.)

But whatever regulations are placed on the procedure, the life and health of the mother must come first. (We know that many opponents of abortion consider the lives of the fetus and the mother to be equal and believe nothing should be done to save one at the expense of the other. This is a theological argument about which Christians have long disagreed.) And in cases of rape and incest, a woman should have a choice about carrying the pregnancy to term.

Roe v. Wade already forbids most third-term abortions, but states can permit them under certain circumstances. In this instance, debate centers around a third-trimester procedure performed only about 400 times a year when the fetus is determined to be malformed or when the mother's health or life is endangered. The House bill would outlaw it unless a doctor can prove it was the only way to save the mother's life. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill today. The legislation would take away the regulatory power from the states - a strange position for conservatives to take - and for the first time would outlaw a specific abortion procedure.

In this case, the matter would be better left with the states. If Congress passes a bill regulating the procedure and encroaching on Roe v. Wade, President Clinton should veto it.

We believe that governments have no business interfering in private heath-care decisions.

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