WASHINGTON -- For years, abortion rights advocates framed the debate on whether women or the government should be able decide to terminate pregnancies. Now abortion opponents are trying to shift attention to whether the procedure is so vile that it should not be done at all.
Because the Supreme Court has said the legislature cannot ban abortion outright, leaders of the new anti-abortion majority in Congress are aiming their fire at a rare, and particularly unsettling, new method used to end late-term pregnancies.
"This is a step beyond abortion on demand," said Rep. Charles T. Canady, a Florida Republican who is chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee that held a public hearing this week on legislation to ban "partial birth abortions."
"It is an inhuman act."
Anti-abortion forces in Congress are still determined to fight the battle on whether federal money can be used to pay for abortions. But now they have hit on a new strategy. Mr. Canady has sponsored legislation to make it a crime to perform "partial birth abortions," although critics say only a minuscule number of abortions fall into this category.
Using life-size charts and graphic details, Mr. Canady and his witnesses sought this week to characterize this method as a greater affront to humanity than other abortion methods.
Leaders of the abortion rights movement called the hearing a transparent tactic aimed at doing away with abortion rights entirely.
"It was sensational and inflammatory, designed to create the impression that all abortions are performed that way," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Rights Abortion League.
The hearing, she said, was also reminiscent of instances in the 1970s and early 1980s, when abortion opponents carried around aborted fetuses in jars.
"This takes us back to before 1984, when the debate was all about the procedure and about the fetus and no one ever talked about the women involved," she said.
But for those determined to restrict, if not outlaw abortions, this tactic has two apparent advantages. As a political matter, among ambivalent lawmakers and voters who favor women's rights but are moved by the graphic details, it may encourage support for limiting abortions.
"Most Americans don't even realize abortion is legal after the first trimester," said Doug Johnson, chief lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee. "We think we'll pick up support for this bill at least from Republicans who are considered 'pro-choice.' "
Perhaps even more important, this tactic puts pressure on doctors, who could be prosecuted for performing the "partial-birth" procedure. "I have to wonder what you're trying to ban with this legislation," J. Courtland Robinson, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital, told Mr. Canady. "It sounds as if you're trying to leave any later abortion open to question, to create a right of action and in fact a criminal violation, to force doctors to prove that they have now somehow violated the law."
Only two doctors in the country are known to perform the procedure, which Dr. Robinson said is virtually unheard of in mainstream medical circles. Both declined to appear at the House hearing.
As described and illustrated at the hearing, the procedure involves partially delivering the fetus feet-first. With the head still in the uterus, the doctor pokes scissors into the base of the skull and uses a catheter to remove the brain. That shrinks the head and allows for easy removal of the dead fetus, thus sparing the mother from going through labor.
"I guess I'm a Pollyanna, but I thought there wouldn't be anyone who would rise in defense of this type of procedure," said Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican from South Carolina. "I guess I'm finding out how radical the other side is. How can anyone support killing a child just inches from birth?"
A deeply moving answer came from Tammy Watts, a Santa Cruz, Calif., woman who sobbed through her tale of undergoing such an abortion. She said she had discovered seven months through her pregnancy that her fetus was hopelessly deformed, couldn't survive past birth and would likely die painfully.
"This was the best thing for her, for McKinsey," Mrs. Watts said, using the name she had picked for her daughter. "Parents have to be the ones to make that decision because we are the only ones who can." The more traditional option for Mrs. Watts, with her late-stage pregnancy, would have been a method known as "D & X," which essentially calls for dismemberment of the fetus in the uterus. But that may pose dangers for the mother.
"This is a day I have dreaded," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat and abortion rights advocate. "For Congress be dictating medical procedure, instead of allowing a woman and her doctor to choose the safest and least intrusive course, is legislating malpractice."
For the new Republican congressional majority, though, the issue is one not of choice but of morality. Now that the economic issues of the first 100 days are behind them, anti-abortion forces are moving to eliminate the procedure wherever they can.
The House has already voted to overturn two of President Clinton's five executive orders on abortion. Their votes would bar abortions at U.S. military hospitals overseas and deny U.S. aid to foreign groups that promote abortion.
"Two evil executive memorandums down, three to go," said Rep. Robert K. Dornan, a California Republican and an outspoken opponent of abortion.
The three other presidential directives, which Mr. Dornan called "death orders," allow abortion at federally funded family planning clinics, permit federal money to be used for fetal tissue research on aborted fetuses and allow the Food and Drug Administration to consider licensing the French abortion pill, RU-486.
Anti-abortion majorities in the Senate as well as the House are also expected to remove abortion training requirements from medical school accreditations, ban abortions in federal prisons, exclude abortion coverage from federal employee health plans and further limit the narrow circumstances in which poor women can receive abortions through Medicaid.
Mr. Clinton could veto these proposals. But many will probably be included in larger spending bills, which would greatly complicate the president's political calculations. In order to veto the abortion provision, the president would also lose other spending proposals he favors.
Advocates on both sides of the issue, each claiming a majority of public opinion for their position, predict that abortion will be a decisive issue in next year's elections.
But the outcome may well depend on how the debate is framed. Gallup polls during the last 20 years consistently show that while two-thirds of Americans believe abortions should be permitted, most of them would attach some conditions.
"In their rush to implement their Neo-Victorian social experiment, my colleagues are whittling away at the rights of women and minorities one chip at a time," said Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, a Georgia Democrat.