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Supreme Court Abortion Ban Ruling Draws Mixed Reaction

Upheld law still allows some late-term abortions; medical experts see minimal impact except for women who need them

THURSDAY, April 19, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions is constitutional will have little effect on the number of abortions performed in the United States, medical experts say.

"The decision today will have a minimal impact on the overall number of abortions, as most terminations are not of the type which have been politically named 'partial birth abortions,' " said Dr. Richard Frieder, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center in California. "So, the immediate impact is insignificant in numbers."

But, he added, "It is very significant ... in that those few women with life-threatening medical conditions will now be denied the option of terminating their pregnancies, as this would be a criminal offense... This failure to provide for consideration of the pregnant woman's health is a major departure in the court's previous decisions, in which the issue of the pregnant woman's medical condition has been an exception, which would be assessed between the doctor and the patient. It is also a major blow to the privacy and integrity of the doctor/patient relationship."

Medical statistics also suggest that the court's 5-4 ruling might not have much impact on the number of abortions done every year in this country.

The controversial procedure, known medically as intact dilatation and evacuation (intact D&E), is usually performed after 12 weeks of pregnancy. And it accounted for less than 1 percent of all U.S. abortions in 2000, according to a survey from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group focused on sexual reproductive health.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 857,475 abortions were performed in the United States in 2003.

The president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists was also critical of the Supreme Court's decision on Wednesday. It marks the first time since the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, which gave American women the legal right to end a pregnancy, that the high court has banned a specific abortion procedure.

"Today's decision to uphold the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 is shameful and incomprehensible to those of us who have dedicated our lives to caring for women," Dr. Douglas W. Laube said in a prepared statement. "It leaves no doubt that women's health in America is perceived as being of little consequence.

"This decision discounts and disregards the medical consensus that intact D&E is safest and offers significant benefits for women suffering from certain conditions that make the potential complications of non-intact D&E especially dangerous. Moreover, it diminishes the doctor-patient relationship by preventing physicians from using their clinical experience and judgment," Laube added.

Women usually choose to have a late-term abortion for a variety of reasons, such as not knowing they were pregnant earlier or a diagnosis of a fetal abnormality late in the pregnancy, according to doctors who perform the procedure.

The procedure in question involves removal of the fetus from the womb through the dilated cervix and then crushing or cutting the skull.

But the ban, passed in 2003 but blocked from taking effect by lower court rulings, doesn't cover a similar and more widely used procedure in which the fetus is taken apart inside the uterus, and pieces are removed through the dilated cervix. And the ban doesn't apply when a late-term abortion may be necessary to save the mother.

Reaction to the Supreme Court ruling was divided.

Wendy Wright, president of the conservative group Concerned Women for America, said in a statement, "In this landmark decision, the Supreme Court concurred with the majority of Americans that partial birth abortions are gruesome, inhumane and never medically necessary."

James Tonkowich, president of another anti-abortion group, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said in a statement, "Roe (v. Wade) is no longer the dictator over the Supreme Court. This is a landmark ruling that slams the brakes on infanticide and the devaluing of human life."

Planned Parenthood's Deputy Director of Litigation and Law, Eve Gartner, said in a statement: "This ruling flies in the face of 30 years of Supreme Court precedent and the best interests of women's health and safety. Today, the court took away an important option for doctors who seek to provide the best and safest care to their patients. This ruling tells women that politicians, not doctors, will make their health-care decisions for them."

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, a professional association of abortion providers in the United States and Canada said: "Today's decision has placed politics above protecting women's health. This ruling is a setback for all Americans who believe politicians should not legislate medical decision-making. The decision disregards the opinion of leading doctors and medical organizations that oppose the ban, because it is harmful to women's health."

More information

For more information on abortion, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Richard Frieder, M.D., obstetrician-gynecologist, Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, and clinical instructor, obstetrics and gynecology, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles; April 18, 2007, statement, Planned Parenthood, Washington, D.C.; statement, Douglas W. Laube, M.D., president, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Washington, D.C; statement, Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, Washington, D.C.; statement, James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Washington, D.C; statement, Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, Washington, D.C.
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