ANNAPOLIS – Four years ago Wednesday, Maureen Britell was a 27-year-old pro-life activist and pregnant mother when she learned her next child would be born without a brain.
With the support of her family, Britell decided to undergo the procedure known as a partial-birth abortion the next day after doctors determined the baby would be born dead and could endanger her health.
But the same procedure that Britell is now fighting to protect was denounced by others Wednesday as an “atrocity,” in which viable fetuses are partially delivered and their skulls crushed to complete the abortion.
Pro-life groups are trying to outlaw the procedure, except in cases where the mother’s life would be endangered by carrying the baby to term.
The testimony before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on the partial-birth abortion ban opened a likely divisive debate that threatens to tie the Senate up in a filibuster.
“It’s coming out of committee, there’s no doubt about that,” said Karyn Strickler, a lobbyist for the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “We’re going to use every legitimate political means to keep this bill from passing.”
Pro-choice groups insist the procedure is rarely done. They said pro-life groups are using the issue as a smoke-screen to eliminate all abortions, and said the partial-birth abortion bill was vaguely worded for just that reason.
“This bill is very disturbing and dangerous because it really puts the legislature in the driver’s seat in making clinical decisions, and that’s not what they’re trained to do,” said Dr. Paul Blumenthal, the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Maryland.
But the bill’s proponents said the procedure is immoral and unnecessary.
“This bill will end what I believe is a very cruel practice,” said Sen. Larry Haines, R-Carroll, the bill’s chief sponsor.
The bill would ban abortions on partially delivered fetuses. Doctors who perform such abortions could face misdemeanor criminal charges, punishable by a fine of $1,000 and up to two years in prison.
Women would not be punished for having the procedure. But the father, or the parents of a minor girl who underwent the procedure, could sue the doctor who performed the abortion.
The procedure normally involves giving drugs to a woman in the late stages of her pregnancy to dilate her cervix, said Dr. Clifton McClain III, an Annapolis obstetrician. A doctor then inserts an instrument into the woman’s uterus to grab the fetus’ foot, so it can be delivered feet-first.
When the fetus is sufficiently drawn out of the uterus, another instrument is used to tap into the fetus’ skull and suck out its brain, McClain testified. He said the fetus is delivered feet-first so it never has a chance to draw a breath.
Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore, asked McClain and other doctors supporting the bill why it did not mention the age of the fetus. The bill makes it a crime to partially deliver “a living fetus vaginally before killing the fetus and completing the delivery.”
McClain said that, since the procedure can only be performed on fetuses that are significantly developed, putting a gestational limit in the bill is irrelevant.
But Strickler said “living fetus” could be interpreted to include any fetus, if a judge believes life begins at conception.
The bill’s opponents said Maryland voters already took a stand on the issue in 1992, when they passed ballot Question 6. It said the state could not interfere with a woman’s decision for an abortion before the fetus was viable — able to survive outside the womb — or if the procedure was necessary to protect her life or health.
Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe, in a Feb. 10 opinion, said the partial-birth abortion bill “does interfere with abortion decisions” that are now left to the woman as a result of Question 6.
If the ban passed, Rowe wrote, “it would supersede the provisions of Question 6” in any area where there were inconsistencies and would have to be settled by the courts.
While no records are kept on partial-birth abortions, pro- life groups said the procedure is more widespread than the bill’s opponents would lead people to believe.
David Lam, executive director of Maryland Right to Life, said partial-birth abortions are not reserved for only “the most tragic and heart-wrenching circumstances.”
“Abortion doctors themselves admit that they perform the vast majority of partial-birth abortions on healthy women carrying healthy babies,” Lam said in a prepared statement.
That was not the case for Britell, who moved from Massachusetts to Silver Spring after her ordeal to become a pro- choice lobbyist in Washington.
The decision to have the abortion was an abrupt reversal of conviction for Britell — a devout Irish-Catholic and former abortion-clinic protester — who said she was glad such a ban did not exist four years ago.
“If this law had been in effect, my doctor would have had to choose between his freedom and my health,” she said before testifying to the committee.