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The Real Partial-Birth War

Stymied in Washington, antiabortion crusaders have won victories in statehouse after statehouse

Time cover

By Sally. B. Donnelly

(TIME, October 20) -- For most political activists, maneuvering a bill through the twists and turns of Congress is the ultimate act. But for antiabortion activists, last week's overwhelming vote in the House to ban partial-birth abortions was merely a sideshow. They knew President Clinton would veto the bill--and on Friday he did, effectively putting off any more debate until next session. More important, they knew there is another battlefield--statehouses across the country--where, time after time, they are winning the fight.

This year alone, 15 states have outlawed a rarely used procedure known politically as partial-birth abortion and described medically as "intact dilation and extraction." To pro-choice groups, the new laws in states from Rhode Island to Montana represent an alarming challenge to the fundamental principles set down by the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. "The antiabortion movement has in one sense already won," says Janet Benshoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law & Policy, which is challenging nine of the new laws in court.

At the center of the debate is a medical procedure in which a doctor partly delivers a late-term fetus and then uses a suction device to extract brain tissue before removing the rest of the body. Advocates on either side dispute why these abortions are performed and how many are done each year. Even doctors cannot agree: the American Medical Association supports a ban, while the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes it.

Many of the new state laws ignore medical definitions and rely instead on the emotionally charged phrase partial birth. In Arkansas, one of the states where new laws are being contested in court, Little Rock lawyer and state legislator Lisa Ferrell said last week that she knew the law contained no actual medical definition of partial birth but she voted for the measure because the procedure is "horrifying." The Arkansas ban, like the one passed by Congress, does not take into account the health of the pregnant woman or make a distinction between a viable fetus and a nonviable one--two issues enshrined by the Supreme Court.

The stage for the statehouse triumphs w