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Gov't Begins Defense of Partial-Birth Abortion Ban

The U.S. government began defending a federal ban on a certain type of abortion by calling doctors who testified that the procedure has not been studied enough to determine whether it is safe or medically justified.

Dr. Watson A. Bowes (search), professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, testified Monday that he knew of no instance where the banned procedure — known as "intact dilation and extraction," or D&X (search— has been needed to protect the health of the mother.

He also said he knew of no studies proving that the procedure would be more dangerous than any comparable technique.

"I don't think we know the relative risks of these procedures," Bowes said.

The  Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (search), signed by President Bush in November, has not been enforced because judges in Lincoln, New York and San Francisco agreed to hear evidence in three simultaneous, non-jury trials on whether the ban violates the U.S. Constitution.

The Bush administration has argued that the procedure, referred to by opponents as "partial-birth" abortion, is "inhumane and gruesome" and causes the fetus to suffer pain.

Conducting a study of D&X surgery would be difficult because of the relatively small number of people who have them done, but it would not be impossible, Bowes said.

During a D&X, a fetus is partially removed from the womb and its skull is punctured. It is generally performed in the second trimester. Abortion rights advocates argue the procedure is sometimes safest for women.

Dr. George Mazariegos (search), a pediatric surgeon at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, told the court Monday that new clinical procedures need to be properly documented to determine their rationale and whether they are safe.

Under cross-examination, plaintiffs' attorney Nan Strauss asked Mazariegos if outlawing a new procedure would allow for such further study.

"No," Mazariegos responded.

In San Francisco, a doctor testifying for the plaintiffs said the banned procedure is often performed and is safe.

Congress, in passing the ban last year, said the procedure was never medically necessary, even to protect a woman's health.

"I'm not sure what these findings are based on," said Fredrik Broekhuizen (search), a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin.

Challenges to the ban were filed by several doctors being represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the National Abortion Federation and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The issue is expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.