If you coughed during the State of the Union address, you might have missed it: Tucked between paeans to faith-based drug-treatment programs and promises to fund AIDS medication was a two-sentence pledge to ban "partial-birth" abortion. It was a quick shout-out to the president's base supporters in the middle of a speech on tax cuts, health care, energy resources and the impending war with Iraq.
But don't be fooled by the brevity of George W. Bush's remarks on the subject: Abortion rights occupies a prominent place at the top of this year's political agenda. Several weeks ago, on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, President Bush promised a gathering at the March for Life that he would sign legislation banning intact dilation and extraction, a procedure that anti-abortion politicians have renamed "partial-birth" abortion. During the same week, White House strategist Karl Rove noted that congressional passage of the ban is one of "the immediate tasks at hand." And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has vowed that Senate action on the ban will be "coming very, very quickly."
Yet the partial-birth issue is a phony debate. Politicians use it to attract support from single-issue abortion voters on both sides of the political spectrum, while organizations like the National Right to Life Committee and the National Abortion Federation use it as a fundraising centerpiece. But the artificial outrage of all involved belies the fact that a partial-birth ban would likely not stop a single abortion from being performed. Moreover, the issue's dominance in the debate over abortion is shifting attention from proposals that actually could result in fewer unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Voters need to understand that this is a made-up issue -- and they need to start holding politicians accountable for passing up genuine solutions to the abortion controversy while wasting their time fighting the partial-birth battle.
While some involved in the partial-birth debate may genuinely care about the sanctity of life or protecting women's health, most are merely interested in wringing one more campaign cycle out of the issue. In both 1996 and 1998, after President Bill Clinton vetoed legislation banning the procedure, Republican congressional leaders timed their overriding votes to coincide with upcoming elections. For instance, in the 105th Congress, almost an entire year passed between Clinton's veto on Oct. 10, 1997, and the Senate veto override vote on Sept. 18, 1998 -- just six weeks before the midterm elections. At the time, abortion opponents argued on the Senate floor that speedy passage of the legislation was necessary to save unborn lives. "Give them a chance, give them a chance," pleaded Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.). But if Republicans were really trying to save lives, why did they wait 11 months to try to override the veto? The truth is that Republican leaders timed the votes to protect vulnerable congressional seats -- instead of the vulnerable lives they claimed to be representing.
The partial-birth ban is not about preventing abortions, nor is it about saving lives. How do we know? Just listen to ban supporters: They claim that other abortion procedures can always be used to save a woman's life or protect her health. This is medically debatable. But if they believe their own rhetoric, they must recognize that the ban would simply require doctors to use another procedure to perform the same abortion. Of course, some will admit that the partial-birth ban is just one phase in a strategy that aims to outlaw all abortion procedures. But if that's the real goal, isn't it disingenuous to hide behind a measure that in reality won't prevent a single abortion from being performed?
In 1997 the Senate considered legislation that would have actually reduced abortion rates while providing protections for women's health and rights. The "Daschle alternative," sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) -- and which, in the interest of full disclosure, I helped write -- failed after intense opposition from both abortion-rights and anti-abortion lobbies. The measure -- which would have prohibited all abortions after a fetus can survive outside the womb, with exceptions to save a woman's life or protect "grievous" threats to her health -- represented such a change in the abortion debate that conservatives such as Bill Bennett and Bill Kristol scolded Republicans for missing their last, best chance to cooperate with Democrats to limit abortion. Bennett even paid the defeated legislation the following compliment: "If I didn't know who sponsored this," he said, "I would have thought it was a pro-life Republican."
Six years later, anti-abortion activists still appear unwilling to accept the argument Bennett and Kristol made in 1997: that abortion opponents could back pragmatic steps to actually reduce the number of abortions rather than choosing to fight the artificial battle of partial-birth abortion. Partial-birth obsessives are once again gearing up for another go at the issue, and as they do, they will have two important allies in their corner: the Senate majority leader and the president.
Chances are, conservatives will try to use Frist's status as a physician to provide cover for the partial-birth ban. Frist, a surgeon by training, has in the past disputed the guidance of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. While the college asserts that dilation and extraction "may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman," Frist consistently refers to the medical technique as a "rogue procedure." And in 1997, Frist even suggested that a woman who faced serious heart complications as a result of pregnancy did not require the option of having an abortion to alleviate her condition. The Senate's only doctor noted that he had performed heart transplants on five pregnant women, all of whom had healthy babies. Frist's single-minded focus on preventing abortions has earned him a failing grade from Planned Parenthood on every reproductive-rights vote since he entered the Senate in 1994. His medical title, however, has earned him unmatched deference from colleagues, and has lent credibility to partial-birth opponents. No one will be surprised if Republicans use Frist to push partial birth once again to the fore during the coming Congress.
For its part, the administration has given indications that it will try to link its abstinence campaign to the partial-birth issue. In recent comments on abortion, Rove called for comprehensive efforts to reduce abortion rates. And, indeed, most policy experts recognize that a broad approach -- including measures to ease adoption regulations and to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives -- is the most effective way to limit the number of abortions. However, this White House's idea of "comprehensive" is likely going to be abstinence education -- the administration's one-size-fits-all solution to a complex social problem. Not surprisingly, two weeks ago, The Associated Press reported that Bush wants to spend $135 million on abstinence programs that don't include discussions of condom use or other birth control.
Meanwhile, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has been fighting since 1997 to require insurance companies to provide coverage for prescription contraceptives. According to a study released in January by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a 20-year decline in the abortion rate is likely the result of increased contraceptive use. In the past few years, Snowe's effort has gained support from even anti-abortion colleagues, who see increased access to contraceptives as a way to limit unwanted pregnancies and, therefore, abortions. Even so, Snowe's legislation has never moved out of committee and is not supported by the White House. If her Republican colleagues were serious about reducing abortion rates, they would allow Snowe's bill to come to a Senate vote. And if they weren't so blinded by partial-birth hysteria, they might see that pragmatic ways to reduce the number of abortions are staring them right in the face.
Amy Sullivan is currently pursuing a doctorate in sociology at Princeton University.