WASHINGTON -- The accusation that President Clinton cares deeply about nothing is refuted by his tenacious and guileful battle to prevent any meaningful limits on the form of infanticide known as partial-birth abortion. That battle proves that his professed desire to make abortion "rare" applies only to the fourth trimester of pregnancies.

Soon -- probably in the first half of May -- the battle will be rejoined in the Senate where the minority leader, South Dakota's Tom Daschle, will offer what he will advertise as a compromise. Truth-in-advertising laws do not apply to legislators.

Mr. Daschle has not published his language yet, but presumably it will be congruent with Mr. Clinton's real, as distinct from his rhetorical, position. And judging by previous legislative maneuverings, a "compromise" measure will be craftily designed for the convenience of "pro-choice" legislators who are kept on a short leash by the abortion-maximizing lobby.

The aim will be to enable such legislators to adhere to that lobby's agenda while casting a cosmetic vote that will mollify a public repelled by partial-birth abortion, the practice of sucking the brains from the skull of a baby delivered feet first and killed while only the head remains in the mother's uterus. Senators should consider this issue in the light cast by the case of Stephanie and Sandra Bartels of Hull, Iowa.

They are twins born in a South Dakota hospital 88 days apart by what is called "delayed-interval delivery." Stephanie, born January 5 when her mother went into premature labor in the 23rd week of her pregnancy, weighed 1 pound, 2 ounces. Sandra, weighing 7 pounds, 10 ounces, was born April 2, by which time Stephanie weighed 4 pounds, 10 ounces.

Location, location, location

For 88 days, while her twin sister's life was protected by the law, Sandra could have been, under the likely terms of the Daschle "compromise," aborted by any abortionist. This is because under any language acceptable to the abortion movement and hence to Messrs. Clinton and Daschle, a baby does not warrant legal protection merely because she is medically "viable," that is, capable of surviving with good medical assistance, a point that now begins at about 23 weeks. Location is the key factor: Unless she is completely outside the mother, she is fair game for the abortionist.

Senator Daschle has at times said that his measure will not put any restrictions on abortions in the second trimester of pregnancy, when about 90 percent of partial-birth abortions occur, involving thousands of babies a year, many of them potentially less precariously viable than Stephanie was. And his language will contain a provision pertaining to "health," perhaps even an apparent limitation to considerations of "physical" health. This will be meaningless if the language grants the abortionist an unreviewable right to determine when the exception applies.

During the 1996 campaign, Mr. Clinton, who had vetoed a ban on partial-birth abortions, said he would support the ban if there were a "minor" amendment creating only a "very stringent" exception. It would allow such abortions to prevent "severe physical damage" to the mother. Note the word "physical."

However, the White House reportedly has told congressional Democrats that Mr. Clinton's views are compatible with "compromise" language proposed last month by Maryland's Rep. Steny Hoyer, co-chairman of the House Democratic Steering Committee. Mr. Hoyer's language would permit post-viability abortions whenever, "in the medical judgment of the attending physician" (the abortionist), not performing the abortion would have "serious adverse health consequences."

Does that include "mental health" consequences? Said Mr. Hoyer, "Yes, it does."

To allay suspicions that this might be an infinitely elastic loophole, he said, "We're not talking about a hangnail, we're not talking about a headache." However, a suspicion unallayed by such flippancy is this: The abortionist will be free to decide that not performing an abortion will cause, say, distress and depression sufficient to constitute serious health consequences.

Senator Daschle, following Mr. Hoyer's precedent, may leave the definitions of "viability" and "health" up to the abortionist. If so, this will be, says Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, akin to a law that ostensibly bans "assault weapons" but empowers any gun dealer to define an assault weapon.

So the Daschle "compromise" probably will aim to confer on the supposedly restricted person, the abortionist, an uncircumscribed right to define the critical terms of the supposed restrictions. If enacted, such a "compromise" would be a remarkable confection, a law that is impossible to violate.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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