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Regional Perspectives on “Partial-Birth” Abortions

May 15, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Should Congress be involved in debating and making laws on abortion? That question is central to the late-term abortion issue, and we ask it now of our five regional commentators: Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe; Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman; Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; and Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Lee, how would you answer the question, should Congress be dealing with the abortion issue at all?

LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Jim, I don’t think Congress has any role in the abortion issue. I think it really belongs in the obstetrician’s office. On a higher level, you might say that philosophers could reasonably deal with it; they might debate when potential life becomes actual life. The arena of theology lends itself. We might very well consider when the body’s animated by the presence of the soul in a religious setting, but I don’t think that it lends itself to legislation, and I regret that government seems to eager to intrude in this area.

JIM LEHRER: Patrick McGuigan, how do you feel about that?

PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: Well, it’s an interesting philosophical question as to whether Congress should in a vacuum be dealing with this issue, but, of course, we’re not living in a vacuum. We’re living in the context of 24 ½ years of Supreme Court law, Supreme Court imposed law that swept away the provisions in all the states, the District of Columbia and the territories, and this is the latest and it appears to be the most successful effort in some time to again address this as a legislative question, which traditionally it was. So I understand Lee’s perspective, but the court made this more of a national issue than it was before. Previously it was an issue handled by the states, and that would probably still be the best place for it to be handled in our society.

JIM LEHRER: But by government, whether it was state or local government, you would still–you do not believe it should be just between doctors and patients.

PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, no, I don’t. I think the law is always a reflection of moral principles, law, all laws. In the case of abortion the consensus prior to 1973 was a consensus that gave the benefit of the doubt, if you will, to the unborn child. That was swept away by the Supreme Court’s decision, by Blackmun and other justices, and now, the court has given permission for some regulation of the abortion procedure beyond merely restrictions on funding, and this is an effort to implement some new restrictions of a particular type of procedure, and I certainly hope that they go with the Santorum approach, rather than Sen. Daschle’s.

JIM LEHRER: Cynthia Tucker, where do you come down on whether or not this is a government issue?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Jim, abortion is a medical procedure, and Congress has absolutely no business in it. Congress is particularly ill-equipped to deal with this matter. The late-term abortion that opponents call partial birth abortion, it is an obscure, very rarely practiced medical procedure, and most members of Congress don’t know what they’re talking about when they discuss it. For example, some members of Congress tried to get doctors to declare the point at which a fetus becomes viable, when it can live outside the womb. The fact of the matter is no physician can declare that. It varies from pregnancy to pregnancy. So that, among many other things, disclose the woeful ignorance many members of Congress have about this subject, and they ought to leave it alone.

JIM LEHRER: Should they leave it alone, Robert Kittle?

ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union-Tribune: No, I don’t think so. You know, Jim, this is an issue where the vast majority of Americans cling very tenaciously to a moderate position. That is, a sizable majority of Americans are pro-choice, but not without restriction. And actually, Roe Vs. Wade was handed down in that context, which permits government to ban abortions under certain circumstances but not to ban abortions during the first two trimesters. And, in fact, a poll that I looked at today showed that 71 percent of Americans oppose partial birth abortions, and about 82 percent of Americans oppose abortions in the third trimester. So I think it’s an obligation of government to consider the circumstances under which abortions would be permissible in the third trimester. And in most cases I think Americans believe very strongly that unless the health of the mother is threatened, abortions in the third trimester are not warranted.

JIM LEHRER: Mike Barnicle, a legitimate function of government?

MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: No. I think it’s an escalating debate over an issue, Jim, that nobody’s really comfortable discussing. You don’t hear people talking about it as they stand in line for coffee in the morning the way people talk about taxes, crime, and welfare. I will tell you this–just as a viewer watching that clip that introduced the segment–I found Senator Santorum and the Senator from Ohio to be almost offensive in that they had charts and speeches prepared by staff over an issue that is intensely personal and intensely emotional in a country that has in large part changed the definition of life. The culture around us has changed the respect one’s had for life, existing life. And now you have 100 people in the United States Senate assuming a role that should–ought to be left to doctors and pregnant women.

JIM LEHRER: Pat McGuigan, how do you respond to that?

PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, I certainly think that abortion raises deep and profound moral questions. You know, the vast majority of these partial birth abortions actually occur, as we’ve learned in recent months, or as a result of all this debate, in the fifth, sixth, and seventh months of pregnancy. That’s when–that’s the time in pregnancy when the unborn child is right on the verge of viability. The debate is focusing people’s attention on that very question, when does an unborn child become a human being, as we think of as a human being. I err on the pro-life side of that, but I think that this debate is helpful in focusing us a little bit away from a lot of the rhetoric and on the fact of, as Justice O’Connor put it many years ago, that this is–at a minimum–emerging life.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about that, Lee, that at least it’s focusing on what matters in this?

LEE CULLUM: Well, I think that that is true, Jim, and I want to say that this focus, absent legislation, might very well bring about a good result. I notice that the American Medical Association is moving away from this procedure, is saying that it’s not the only one that’s necessarily appropriate, and that it should be available only when absolutely necessary. So I think, left alone, given a chance, the medical community will solve this matter and solve it in a way that–that will be satisfying to just about everybody. We don’t need government involved in it. I think it can take care of itself.

JIM LEHRER: What about that, Robert Kittle, left alone the medical profession could resolve this?

ROBERT KITTLE: Well, I’m not certain that’s the case. The debate over how often these procedures are performed come up with some very widely varying numbers. Recommendations by the AMA–in fact, the AMA Board of Trustees essentially said that there was no need for this procedure at all, that there were always other alternatives that could be–that could be employed. But yet we have either several hundred more–depending upon the numbers you believe–as many as 5,000 of these procedures performed a year. So I think there is a role for government in protecting–in particular in protecting a child that has achieved viability. The government has a role there to step in and to say, now, government will prohibit this kind of procedure under these circumstances.

JIM LEHRER: Cynthia, back to the point that Mike made that people in the checkout counters in Boston, at least, they’re not arguing about this, because it’s so personal. What’s the situation in Atlanta? What kind of response stories about this get in your newspaper?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: The typical ones, Jim. Most people have already decided what they think about the abortion issue. Georgia is in the South–a very conservative part of the country. There are many, many religious conservatives here who are opposed to any kinds of abortion. I think many people have been particularly concerned about this procedure because of the debate they have heard. Let me say that the debate has been in no way illuminating, however, because most of what they have heard from both sides has been wrong. The fact of the matter is no statistics are kept on how often this late-term procedure is performed. So much of what has been heard on the floor of Congress is propaganda from both sides. It is true that the medical community has other methods for performing late-term abortions, but if I doubt that those other procedures would be any more acceptable to many of those people who are diehard opponents of abortion.

JIM LEHRER: Mike, do you agree with that, that you could debate this point endlessly and you would never change, unlike other issues, you’d never change anybody’s mind?

MIKE BARNICLE: I’m inclined to–the very terms partial birth abortion, pro-choice, right to life, are polarizing terms. I personally don’t know anyone who’s in favor of abortion. I do know a lot of people who want that type of decision left to themselves, as husband and wife. I think what’s happened in this country is we focus on these–these volatile issues in the United States Senate and in public opinion polls, and we end up with two groups–one on one side–one on the other–neither of which are going to move, and we forget that in the vast middle there are hundreds of thousands of people out there each day who know that the definition of life, the definition of respect for life, is not being taught in many public schools, K through 8, as it once was. It’s not being taught in families that have disintegrated compared to the way families were a unit 25-30 years ago. And, instead, we focus on these incredibly volatile issues that just divide people, rather than educate people.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of that, Pat?

PATRICK McGUIGAN: I think it’s a very difficult moral question. I do disagree that people are incapable of changing their mind or that even a large portion of the population might change their mind over time. I think this debate of recent months has created even more ambivalence in that big middle that Bob Kittle talked about, the people that are having trouble with the issue. They recognize this is potential life, emerging life. The question is: At what point do they consider it a human being? I think those children are human beings, and we ought to find ways to try to welcome them and bring them to be with us.

JIM LEHRER: All right. I was just going to say, I’m sorry, we have to leave it there.

PATRICK McGUIGAN: Okay.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you all five very much.