From the Arkansas Statehouse...

The politics of partial-birth abortion.

In Dawn Creekmore, Public Health on 19 February 2009 at 2:57 pm

As expected, the Senate passed Rep. Dawn Creekmore’s partial-birth abortion ban today. Three senators voted against it: Sen. Sue Madison, Sen. Mary Anne Salmon and Sen. David Johnson.

A ‘no’ vote was a vote for reason. The ban is effectively meaningless, a political wedge issue to get people riled up. The procedure in question has never been performed in Arkansas, at least according to testimony in both the House and the Senate.

The way they talk about the procedure, some ban supporters would have us think there are jaundice-eyed abortionists out there slobbering at the chance to brutalize fetuses — a dubious prospect. In fact, partial-birth abortion is reserved for serious medical situations. And if one day an Arkansas woman does need the procedure for health reasons, the performing doctor will face jail time, fines, civil penalties and a loss of license. Though the ban contains an exception to prevent the death of a woman, it does not say anything about preserving the health of a woman — i.e., if a doctor is not 100 percent sure that a woman will die without a partial-birth abortion, then he can’t perform it without putting his own livelihood at risk. I’m guessing that’s a level of certainty few doctors would feel comfortable expressing.

In effect, the bill will either rob a well-meaning doctor of his discretion or put him at the mercy of courts and the Arkansas Medical Board.

Sen. Johnson expressed some of these concerns in explaining his ‘no’ vote. He said he didn’t like that there are no exceptions for a woman’s health. He hypothesized a situation where a doctor performs a partial-birth abortion to prevent a woman’s death and is subsequently brought before a court. If the prosecution finds just one doctor to testify that the procedure was unnecessary to save the woman’s life, then the doctor who performed the abortion could be ruined, he said. He also expressed concern at the civil penalties within the bill. (Those confusing terms, which allow a fetus’s father or grandparents to sue the abortionist in certain circumstances, are copied straight from a federal partial-birth abortion ban.)

But a loss for reason is a win for politics. Abortion is such a hot-button issue for its opponents that any legislator who votes ‘no’ could face a backlash from voters. That is particularly true for the partial-birth issue decided today, as it received almost no logical debate on the merits. And if the ban doesn’t really have a practical effect, why not vote for it rather than risk political penalty?

Gov. Beebe has already said he will approve the bill. I can’t totally blame him, though he is taking the expedient path.

What would I do? If I’m a politician, I sign it. If I’m a reasonable person, I veto it.

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