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Clinton Abortion Stance Reignites Fierce Debate

Health: Daschle's plan is alternative to proposed halt to 'partial-birth' procedure. Foes call it a sham.


WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Tuesday reignited an incendiary debate over late-term abortions, appearing to embrace a Senate Democrat's proposal that would outlaw all third-term abortions except those performed to avert "grievous" harm to a mother's health.

Just as abortion foes were preparing to launch a new legislative assault on the grisly late-term procedure they call "partial-birth" abortion, Clinton caused them to delay floor action by indicating he was close to throwing his support behind a Democratic alternative crafted by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Daschle's proposal could theoretically bar virtually all late-term procedures conducted after a fetus reaches "viability," a milestone usually achieved between the 24th and 26th weeks--or third trimester--of pregnancy. The "partial-birth" abortion ban, by contrast, would outlaw a single procedure, but one that is performed as early as the 20th week of gestation, well within the second-trimester time period protected by the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision.

While the Daschle proposal appears to have the potential to outlaw more abortions, it in fact would affect only the 600 total third-trimester procedures performed annually. Abortion opponents have denounced it as a political subterfuge designed to derail the effort to ban "partial-birth" abortions, also known medically as intact dilation and extraction, in which a fetus is killed after partial removal from the womb. They claim many thousands of such abortions occur each year in the second trimester.

Under Daschle's alternative, a doctor could abort a fetus beyond the point of viability only if the mother's physical health were in substantial danger. Daschle and others believe that would narrow the "health exemptions" adopted by the 41 states that so far have limited access to abortions of viable fetuses.

As interpreted by the courts, the broad health exemptions in place in those states come into play if in the opinion of a doctor a woman would suffer emotional distress or depression as a consequence of continued pregnancy. Daschle's proposal would raise that bar by requiring a doctor to attest that a woman's physical health would be "grievously injured" by the continued pregnancy.

But abortion foes called Daschle's exemptions a "sham" that would fail to stop any abortions currently being performed. Doctors providing the abortions would be the ones to determine whether a woman and the fetus she carries have met the standards laid out in the bill, and their judgments would not be subject to review. Under such conditions, say antiabortion activists, few abortion providers would deny a woman the abortion she seeks.

"This empowers the doctor to kill the baby whenever he certifies that it was necessary," said Doug Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. Johnson called Daschle's proposal "phony" and charged that the Democratic leader "has done a masterful job of marketing it."

Indeed, on the battleground of abortion politics, the amendment crafted by Daschle--a lawmaker with a mixed record on abortion--appears to be a flanking maneuver. On Tuesday, it threw sponsors of the "partial-birth" abortion ban into considerable disarray, prompting some to question whether they could continue to hold the political high ground with a bill that might appear to be more limited in scope than Daschle's.

After the Senate's Republican leadership opted to delay the start of debate until at least today, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) allowed that "some aspects" of Daschle's bill "are worth considering," and could be taken up at a later time.

Senate approval of the "partial-birth" abortion ban is not in doubt. The measure, adopted by the House in March, won a majority of Senate votes in 1995, and antiabortion forces picked up at least four additional votes in the most recent election. But Lott and others acknowledged Tuesday they do not have the 67 votes necessary to override an expected veto by President Clinton.

In addition to upending the abortion debate and confounding his opposition, Daschle sought to provide Clinton with political cover on an issue that has deeply divided the American public.

When he vetoed legislation last year that would have banned the "partial-birth" procedure, Clinton said he would back a measure that would make all late-term abortions harder to get if it also provided sufficient exemptions for a woman whose health or future fertility is imperiled by a continued pregnancy.

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