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As male GOP legislators look on, President Bush signs the Partial Birth Abortion Bill. (AFP Photo / Getty Images)
ELLEN GOODMAN

Out of the picture on the abortion ban

MAYBE THIS picture isn't worth a thousand words. That honor probably belongs to the flight deck portrait of the president under the sign "Mission Accomplished." Maybe the presidential photo op now flying around the Internet and soon to be available on your local T-shirt is only worth 750 words.

The picture shows the president surrounded by an all-male chorus line of legislators as he signs the first ban on an abortion procedure. It's a single-sex class photo of men making laws governing something they will never have: a womb.

This was not just a strategic misstep, a rare Karl Rove lapse. It perfectly reflected the truth of the so-called partial-birth abortion law. What's wrong with this picture? The legislators had indeed erased women. They used the law as if it were Photoshop software, to crop out real women with real problems.

Indeed, just days after the shutter snapped, three separate courts ordered a temporary halt to the ban on these very grounds: It doesn't have any exemption for the health of a women.

This is what brings me back, kicking and screaming, to the subject of abortion. I don't want to write about this. Like most Americans, I want the abortion debate to end. I want abortion to be safe and rare. That's safe and rare. And early.

Over the years, I've rejoiced at sonograms and picked names for what we call a baby when it's wanted and a fetus when it isn't. I'm aware that medicine has put the moment of viability on a collision course with the moment of legal abortion. And I am also aware that not every pregnancy goes well, that sometimes families face terrible, traumatic choices.

Sixty-eight percent of Americans have been convinced by a public relations coup that this new law bans only a fringe and outrageous procedure. But the refusal to include an exception for the health of a pregnant woman takes this from the fringe to the heart of the debate. It's a deliberate, willful first strike at some of the most vulnerable women, those who need medical help the most.

The moment the antiabortion leaders invented the term "partial-birth abortion," they made women invisible. The cartoon figures shown at congressional debates were, literally, drawings of a headless womb holding a perfect Gerber baby of some six or more months.

As Priscilla Smith, legal director of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said, "they turned the argument from the right of a woman to have an abortion to the reasons women have abortions." And then they declared those reasons to be frivolous.

The headless womb belonged to a generic woman who, as one opponent said, would get an abortion to fit into a prom dress. She would carry a pregnancy for months and then casually flip a coin between birth and an abortion "inches from life."

Time and again, abortion-rights supporters said they too would vote for the ban if opponents recognized that some pregnancies go terribly awry for the fetus or the woman and that some doctors found this procedure safest. But antiabortion forces simply declared -- against the evidence of the AMA or the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology -- that it was never medically necessary.

Some years ago, when President Clinton vetoed a similar bill, he was surrounded by women. These women had been through pregnancies that came with words like hydrocephalus and polyhydramnia, and came with risks like hysterectomies. But the men around Bush see a health exception as a giant loophole. They believe a woman would leap through this loophole to get to the prom.

Behind this is simply a mistrust of women as moral decision-makers. A mistrust so profound that their health is now in the hands of the courts. Not long ago, the Supreme Court ruled by exactly one vote that a law similar to this one violated the Constitution.

This should be a wake-up call to young women, because it's their health at risk, their role as moral decision-makers disparaged.

The most reliable supporters of abortion rights today are women over 50. It is, ironically, post-menopausal women who still lead the struggle to keep abortion legal for younger women. Everyone will tell you the younger generation simply doesn't remember a time when abortion was illegal. They can't believe it will ever be illegal again. How many believe they could be among those who need it?

Days before signing this ban, the president tried to reassure voters that it wasn't time to "totally ban abortions." But young women should put this picture up on their desktops. The folks in that photo op don't trust you. They don't even see you.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman @globe.com.

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