WHEN Congress and state legislatures debate bills that would ban so-called "partial-birth" abortions, supporters of such legislation like to assure doubters that it would apply only to a particular kind of abortion.
Yet when physicians and judges examine these laws, they often find the wording vague enough to apply to far more abortions than the relative few that are ostensibly targeted. Some 28 states have passed "partial-birth" abortion bans since 1995, and most of them have been challenged in court. Laws in Illinois and Ohio have been thrown out as unconstitutional.
The latest partial-birth battleground is Wisconsin, where a new law would brand physicians who performed such procedures as Class A felons and send them to prison for life. Last month, a federal appeals court refused to block the law from taking effect before a federal judge decides its constitutionality.
In response, physicians in the state stopped performing even first-trimester abortions. Abortion services resumed after local prosecutors assured physicians they would not bring charges against them for performing early abortions.
While the penalties provided in the Wisconsin law are especially harsh, the fears of physicians are not confined to that state. Nor should they be.
When legislators begin targeting specific medical procedures, doctors -- as well as patients -- should worry that health care decisions are being made with an eye toward getting votes rather than protecting the best interests of patients.
Another reason for caution is that many supporters of the bans will readily admit that they want to use these laws to achieve their ultimate goal of stopping all abortions. The reaction of physicians in Wisconsin, however temporary it may have been, suggests that "partial-birth" bans may be an effective step in reaching that goal.
Pub Date: 6/05/98