The Senate plunged once again Wednesday into a debate over late abortions, as three different bills competed to appear more civilized, more reasonable or fairer.
At the same time, the White House retreated from its earlier stance and instead of backing one of the bills, backed two of them. The American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology weighed into the debate, blurring the distinct lines senators tried to draw about what the doctors said were medical matters.
The debate began by exploring profound questions about when a fetus is able to live outside the womb and at what point in a pregnancy society is willing to declare abortion unacceptable. But it was cut short when the Senate chose to turn to other business, and voting on the bills is to begin today.
So far, the debate has proved as divisive as it was last year and just as intractable, even though Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader, has offered a compromise that he had hoped would both respond to political pressures for some action to restrict abortion and still protect a woman’s health.
Daschle’s proposal would ban all abortions after the fetus was able to live outside the womb unless continuing the pregnancy imperiled a woman’s life or threatened her with “grievous” harm to her health.
A second measure, offered by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, would also ban abortions after the fetus is viable but would allow exceptions to save the life of the woman and to protect her health from serious harm. They offer a broader definition of health than the Daschle proposal, including mental as well as physical health.
The third bill under consideration is the one that set off the current debate. Introduced by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., it would ban the so-called “partial-birth abortion” procedure. The procedure, called intact dilation and extraction by those who would allow it, involves collapsing the skull of a fetus so it can be delivered through the birth canal.
Santorum said the debate was about babies’ lives, not a woman’s abstract choice to end a pregnancy.
Women who want the procedure are selfish, he said, adding, “You need only look at the selfishness, the individual self-centeredness of this procedure - a procedure we would not do on Jeffrey Dahmer, a procedure we would not do on the worst criminal in America, we will do on a healthy little baby.”
Boxer said the question was one of who makes the decision.
“Who decides?” she asked the nearly empty chamber. “Senator Santorum? I hope not.”
She added: “I know politicians have big egos, but we’re not doctors.” Doctors should make medical decisions, she said.
Feinstein said Daschle’s bill would allow exceptions for serious health problems caused by pregnancy but not for those exacerbated by pregnancy. She said his “limiting language could foreclose a doctor’s options” in unforeseen circumstances.
The Daschle proposal has complicated the picture for the Santorum bill. Asked if the Daschle bill was hurting his efforts to find the 67 votes he needs to override an expected presidential veto, Santorum said, “I don’t know how much yet, but it’s certainly not helping the situation.”