OCTOBER 7, 1996 page 67


WHEN BILL CLINTON AND the Democrats were down, abortion was about the only issue working for them. Now they are up, and abortion partial birth abortion, to be precise may be just about the only issue working against them. Not this year, perhaps, but the pro-choice forces are in danger of turning themselves into extremists on this one. While anti-abortion activists failed last week to override Clinton's veto of a ban on the partial-birth procedure, they succeeded in opening a promising new front in their struggle. Their arguments even managed to rouse the consciences of basically pro-choice types like me, who are beginning to doubt the National Rifle Association-style zealotry of the home team. But it turns out the pro-lifers are playing loose with the details, too. Give me flip-flopping mushy compromise any time. When politics meets moral conviction, the truth usually gets aborted.

Especially if nobody knows the facts. About the only thing all sides can agree on is that "partial-birth abortion," the term coined by anti-abortion activists for a medical procedure known officially as "intact dilation and evacuation," is horrific. Doctors bring the fetus down into the birth canal, then crush the skull so that the head can be pulled out of the uterus. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Catholic Democrat who generally votes pro-choice, says it is "as close to infanticide as anything I've come upon." How many such procedures are performed each year? Here's where it gets complicated. Pro-lifers rightly complain that statistics on abortion are gathered mostly by abortion-rights activists, not by the government or some independent authority. And although both sides agree that there are about 1.5 million abortions performed a year, the type and timing of the practice is in dispute.

When the partial-birth-abortion debate took shape last year, pro-choice groups insisted the procedure was extremely rare. The number 500 to 600 was tossed around, with the president and others explaining that it was reserved for heart-wrenching cases involving women whose tests show severely deformed fetuses or whose health was at risk. Not so. When deemed medically appropriate, it is used much more commonly perhaps several thousand times a year [although a New Jersey clinic denies widespread reports that it performed 1,500 a year]. The Washington Post surveyed physicians and found that most of those patients receiving partial-birth abortions were young, poor, single women without health problems. They simply wanted abortions, and in the second trimester it is sometimes the recommended procedure, though pro-life former surgeon general C. Everett Koop says this type of abortion is never truly medically necessary. If progressives listen raptly to Koop on tobacco, they at least owe him a hearing on obstetrics.

Even so, the pro-life camp has been equally misleading in suggesting that "late-term" abortions are common. They are not. Supporters of the ban made it seem as if a healthy woman could find herself not fitting into her prom dress, walk into an abortion clinic 40 weeks pregnant and get an abortion. This is against the law in 41 states, and Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation insists this "simply does not happen in the United States; the doctors won't perform them." Maybe so, but Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council points out that courts have expanded Roe v. Wade to allow "the health of the mother" to include psychological health, a standard so broad as to render it meaningless and allow late-term abortion on demand. Yet neither he nor other anti-abortion activists have produced any examples of women who aborted normal fetuses in the third trimester. Indeed, the total number of abortions performed after 24 weeks is tiny. Only two clinics in the country even perform third-trimester abortions.

This year's ban may have been too sweeping, but pro-choice forces are too uncompromising. They see any regulation as a slippery slope to the bad old days of illegal abortions just as the NRA sees banning assault weapons as the first step to the confiscation of all guns. In both cases lobbies with a reasonable claim on the mainstream risk marginalizing themselves by overreacting to the slightest move from the other side. This is what happens when politics is ruled by rigid principles. Compromise becomes tantamount to selling out bedrock belief, and each camp's position hardens.

The partial-abortion clash will resonate, but how? "I get irritated when I hear our supporters say, 'This is a good strategy to pick up Senate seats or 'It will help Dole close a 20-point gap'," says Gary Bauer. But hey, we're less than a trimester away from the election. In the short run, partial-birth abortion will now help Dole with swing-vote Catholics and evangelicals [many of whom have been, amazingly enough, leaning toward Clinton]. In the medium run, it all but wrecks the national political aspirations of New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. A pro-choice Republican has a slight enough chance for his or her party's nomination in 2000; a pro-partial -birth-abortion Republican like Whitman has virtually no chance. In the long run, the debate should help us recognize the mistake we made leaving abortion to the courts, where judges have spent years trying to plant principle in the soggy soil of emotion. This has rendered the post-Roe wrangling fiercer than it needed to be. Other Western countries have experienced less rancor by debating abortion legislatively, then regulating it. Ultimately, that's the best way to answer the really tough questions in a democracy by compromising, with the common sense that Americans have long and reliably applied to their own lives.

Going to extremes: Both sides agree that partial-birth abortion is horrific, but the pro-choicers reflexively refuse to give ground [picture caption]