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Earlier this month, the Senate approved the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. In the coming weeks, the House of Representatives will vote on the most severe legislative assault to the abortion rights granted by Roe v. Wade thirty years ago. If signed into law, the bill will be the first time Congress has ever specifically banned a medical procedure. The legislation would prohibit doctors from performing what is technically known as a “dilation and extraction’’ procedure. Physicians who knowingly defy the ban could be subject to jail terms as long as two years.
The bill makes no exception for preserving the health of the pregnant woman and thereby undermines doctors’ professional integrity—denying them the freedom to determine the safest procedure for a patient. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has called the legislation “inappropriate, ill-advised, and dangerous.” While abortion remains a touchy issue for many people, the pending legislation is troublesome because it neglects concerns for the mother’s health and prosecutes doctors who act in the best health interest of their patients.
While approximately 90 percent of all abortions take place in the first trimester, before the fetus is 12 weeks old, second-trimester abortions remain rare and are most often performed in cases of extreme fetal deformities, or when the health or life of the mother is at risk.
“Partial-birth” abortion, a non-medical term actually coined by abortion rights opponents, refers to an abortion procedure usually performed in the second trimester due to fetal abnormalities or medical conditions threatening the mother. The procedure accounts for fewer than 1 percent of all abortions, or approximately 2,200 abortions a year. While the actual procedure is rarely used, it is sometimes critical in saving a pregnant woman’s life.
There are two other second-trimester abortion options, but the dilation and extraction method is often the safest for the pregnant woman. A 1998 Journal of the American Medical Association article concluded that the death rate connected with other second trimester abortion methods were nearly double the rate for the dilation and extraction method. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology confirms that the dilation and extraction method “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance and only the doctor, in consultation with the patient, can make this decision.”
The legislation leaving Congress is the product of political banter, not sound medical judgement. This ban is particularly troublesome because it criminalizes the reliable method when a woman’s health is of greatest concern. Women seeking abortions deserve access to the safest medical procedure available—the appropriate choice of treatment should be a decision that rests with a woman and her doctor, not with Congress.
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