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Chipping away at women's rights

Let's get one thing straight. The women who are having second-trimester abortions aren't doing so because they decided over lunch that having a baby would affect their schedule. They are teens who didn't realize they were pregnant. College students whose birth control failed. Sometimes, they're young incest victims. They're grief-stricken women who found out, late, that the fetuses they are carrying are not viable. Or their own health is in danger.

Then there are the "partial birth" abortions. Despite what the right-to-life movement would like you to believe, these procedures are rare, a very last resort, and are not performed in Massachusetts. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, just 1 percent of abortions take place after week 21.

In Attleboro, Four Women Inc. provides abortions for women from all over the region. The staff at the nonprofit health clinic, started by a handful of women, has never seen a "partial birth abortion" performed. The name is inflammatory, and medically incorrect, says Carol Belding, executive director.

"It's for shock value," says Belding. In the years she has been involved in women's health issues, she has seen thousands of abortions performed throughout the country, and she has never witnessed a "partial birth."

"The heart of the matter is the opposition is trying to attack Roe v. Wade bit by bit," says Belding, a mother of three.

It would appear that the opposition is succeeding. With the recent Senate ban on "partial birth" abortions, and the state Legislature debating "right to know" laws that would require doctors to give women additional pamphlets describing the development of a fetus and risks associated with abortions, it's understandable that the folks at Four Women are concerned. The federal law would impose a two-year jail sentence on the doctor performing the procedure.

By the way, lest you think that the waiting period is about providing women with more information, you should know that the state Department of Public Health already provides detailed consent forms for women undergoing abortions.

"I think to do any more is to infantalize women," says Molly Finneseth, a nurse at Four Women. If patients arrive at her clinic undecided, they will be sent home to mull over the issues some more, she adds.

Make no mistake: these new attempts at access are just about control. Isn't it funny that male lawmakers claim to have a woman's best interests at heart when discussing her uterus? And that the male right-to-lifers care more about a fetus than the health of a grown woman -- or a young girl, for that matter -- who is already born and has a life?

The rare "partial birth" abortion is an extraordinary procedure performed under the most dire of circumstances: to preserve the life and health of the heartbroken mother who has just found out that her fetus has late-term anomalies. It's not a procedure that any woman -- or doctor -- would enter into otherwise.

The vast majority of abortions are in the first three months. Sometimes clinics such as Four Women will perform second-trimester abortions. "We've had a 12-year-old rape victim who never even had her period," says Belding. "How in the world is she supposed to understand the complexity of her menses and ovulation? Women don't ever expect to be in this position, but if they need an abortion due to some pretty significant situations in their lives, we want to keep it safe and legal for them." Sometimes it takes women several weeks to raise the money for a safe abortion.

The staff at Four Women keep their doors open despite picketing and harassment by right-to-lifers who carry bloody signs and shout slogans. Thirty years ago, the United States Supreme Court made abortions legal in the landmark case, Roe v. Wade. That means the woman who has to abort a fetus because she is undergoing chemotherapy -- or the 45-year-old woman with grown children whose birth control failed, or the 12-year-old rape victim -- can have access to a safe procedure. It also means that young women, and men, who fail to use birth control have an option other than parenthood or adoption. It means that the bad old days of the back alleys are over.

To Molly Finneseth, the issue is about providing a safe, legal medical procedure for women. "It's not a moral decision," she says. "It's a legal right." It's what the Supreme Court decided three decades ago. Isn't it about time our mostly male lawmakers could see things as clearly?

And isn't it an irony that conservatives such as President George W. Bush, who say they are eager to get big government off the backs of the people, insist on being involved in this most intimate part of a woman's life?

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at 617-929-8770 or via e-mail at

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