The real arguments over late abortions

By now, most Americans have heard the gruesome details of so-called partial-birth abortion. Many have even seen the unforgettable sketches of pointy scissors aimed at a tiny neck.

It's a public-relations coup for those who seek — ultimately — to end legal access to abortion. Americans are now intimately familiar with a procedure that is, by all accounts, rarely used.

The disturbing images, combined with inflammatory language like "infanticide" and "killing of a child" are certainly convincing. A recent Gallup poll found 68 percent of the public believes partial-birth abortion should be illegal.

But Americans have been duped. Partial-birth abortion is not a medical term. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, signed by President Bush last month, is a political maneuver that aims to chip away at a woman's right to choose whether or not to bear a child.

If the law's authors truly wanted to ban a single procedure, they could have used medical terminology. The ban seems to describe a procedure, called intact dilatation and extraction, that is rare nationwide.

But the vague law does not address the gestational stage of the fetus. The description could also conceivably apply to most second-trimester abortions. Under the law, doctors who perform a "partial-birth" abortion can be imprisoned and fined. There's no exception allowed to preserve the mother's health or fertility.

In recognition of these serious constitutional issues, three federal judges have issued injunctions preventing the ban from taking effect. For now, the issue is in the hands of the courts.

In the meantime, the abortion debate needs more honesty and clarity, not less.

Women aren't flipping a coin late in pregnancy, deciding whether or not to have a baby, and their doctors aren't killing "children who are inches away from birth." A woman's right to end her pregnancy already ends at viability, thanks to the Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade. After that, an abortion can be performed only when the woman's life or health is at risk.

In reality, the majority of abortions occur in the first trimester. A decision to seek an abortion in the second trimester is usually tangled up with difficult circumstances.

Sometimes, there are grave fetal anomalies that are not detected until the second trimester. Sometimes, a woman's health is threatened. Doctors and their patients, not legislators, should decide how best to handle these complex, agonizing medical situations.

It's time to stop the deception and focus on the real issues.

It will take better education and more reliable, accessible contraception — not sneaky politics — to reduce the frequency of abortion.