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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 1,000 women, the Associated Press said Sept. 13. Today, officials say, the rate is 10 per 1,000.

Northern Ireland victory

In Northern Ireland, pro-lifers claimed a victory when judicial authorities rejected a petition to publish guidelines on when abortions can be legally sought. The Family Planning Association wanted the courts to force the Department of Health to publish guidelines for doctors, BBC reported July 7. Justice Brian Kerr said the law as it stood was clear.

The association also called for women in Northern Ireland to have the same access to abortion facilities as women in other parts of the United Kingdom. Abortions are currently allowed in Northern Ireland only if it can be proved that the pregnancy would damage the physical or mental health of the woman.

In a declaration the same day, Betty Gibson, chairman of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in Northern Ireland, said: "The law on abortion in Northern Ireland gives considerable protection to unborn children which is what the overwhelming majority of people here want."

In England, the situation for the unborn is worse. Ann Widdecombe, a former Conservative Party minister, accused the health service of pressuring schoolgirls to have abortions in order to help the government to meet its target of reducing teen-age pregnancies, the daily Independent reported June 5.

From 1998 to 2001, pregnancies among under-18s in England dropped by 6.4% from 41,089 to 38,439 a year. At the same time, the number of abortions increased to 17,700 from 17,300.

A hot potato in U.S. elections

Back in the United States, abortion promises to be a key issue in next year's federal elections, as pro-abortion groups dedicate big sums to wooing voters. The Washington Post on Sept. 25 reported on a study by the Center for Public Integrity. The study found that the fund-raising advantage enjoyed by Republicans could be significantly mitigated by the success of Democratic-leaning "527" committees.

Known by the section of the tax code under which they fall, 527 committees can accept unlimited donations. The center's study, which covered the period from August 2000 to August 2003, found that money going to Democratic-leaning organizations -- among them abortion-rights groups -- was more than double that going to Republican-affiliated groups, $185 million vs. $81.6 million.

And a new group America Coming Together (ACT) is planning to spend $75 million on voter mobilization, including a $10 million contribution from international financier George Soros. According to the group's Web site, the president of ACT, Ellen Malcolm, began EMILY's List, an organization that channeled funds to help elect pro-abortion Democratic women.

The battle over the unborn continues unabated.


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Abortion, Prolife, ACT, Emily's List

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