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Abortion: Still the Great Divider

Pro-lifers See Some Victories, for the Moment

WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 27, 2003 ( - That abortion remains a hot issue is axiomatic. On Sept. 17 the U.S. Senate voted 93-0 to clear a procedural hurdle that moved the country a step closer to banning partial-birth abortion. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives had already approved bills to that effect, and the latest vote helped to overcome a difference between the two texts.

The vote, however, didn't lay the issue to rest, as seen by the widely contrasting newspaper editorials that followed. The Washington Times on Sept. 19 said "the Senate wound up an unnecessarily prolonged debate on a gruesome procedure." The paper described partial-birth abortion as a "cruel procedure" that "extracts the humanity from both its practitioners and those who permit it to be practiced."

A New York Times editorial the same day expressed dismay over the impending ban, calling it "a substantial blow against women's reproductive freedom." For the New York paper, those supporting the banning of partial-birth abortions (likened to infanticide by many observers) "show a troubling disrespect not just for the rights of women, but also for truth, and the rule of law."

A shrinking Russia

For the first time in 50 years Russia is starting to limit abortions. Abortions will still be easy to obtain during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. But the grounds on which an abortion can be obtained from the 13th week until the 22nd week have been reduced from 13 to four by the Ministry of Health, the New York Times reported Aug. 24. The four grounds are rape, imprisonment, the death or severe disability of the husband, or a court ruling stripping the parental rights from a woman.

"It's a first step," said Aleksandr Chuyev, a member of the lower house of Parliament, who introduced legislation earlier this year to ban all abortions after the 12th week and then took part in negotiations with the Ministry of Health on drafting the new restrictions.

The change will have only a small effect on the total number of abortions. Of the 1.7 million abortions in 2002, the Times said, 40,000 were carried out under one of the 13 grounds. Yet, abortion has declined notably in the past few years, from a high of 4.6 million in 1988 to 1.7 million last year.

The proportion of abortions to births remains high, however. There are 13 abortions for every 10 births, compared with roughly three abortions in the United States, the Associated Press reported July 28.

The abortion law changes come against a background of increasing fears over Russia's demographic future. The state statistics committee said that the population had fallen by 0.3%, 506,000 people, during the first seven months of this year, the British daily Guardian reported Sept. 22.

The same committee predicted that, in a worst case forecast, the population could plunge from today's 145 million to 77 million by 2050. Even the most optimistic estimate foresees a decline to 122.6 million. The committee concluded that a 30% drop, to 101 million, is the most probable outcome.

Debate in Slovakia

A still-unsettled dispute over abortion laws divided opinions in Slovakia during the lead-up to the Pope's recent visit. Slovakia's Parliament approved a measure to make abortion legal until the 24th week of pregnancy. Controversy over the measure shook the fragile government of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, the Associated Press reported July 3.

The current law only allows abortions until the 12th week of pregnancy. Health ministry regulations allow late-term abortions in the case of fetal defects or genetic problems, but the parliamentary vote would make the rules part of the legal code. Debate over the subject began two years ago when the conservative Christian Democratic Movement challenged the legality of late-term abortions before the Constitutional Court. The court then suspended its judgment while waiting for a further decision by the Parliament.

On July 23 Reuters reported that Slovak President Rudolf Schuster vetoed the abortion bill, setting the grounds for a conflict with Parliament. At the same time, continued polemics over the proposed liberalization of abortion threatened to split the governing coalition.

In the end, the coalition decided to wait for a decision by the Constitutional Court on the proposed law before taking any further steps, the weekly newspaper Slovak Spectator reported Sept. 15. For its part the court has postponed its final ruling while it examines the matter more closely. Court president Ján Mazák has turned to the European Court of Human Rights for reference.

Whatever the outcome, abortion has declined in Slovakia. A decade ago the country had one of the world's highest abortion rates, 40 per ...

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