Former Republican Rep. Tom Coburn (search), a physician accused of sterilizing a woman without her permission, defended his actions Sunday in the first televised debate of Oklahoma's Senate race, saying he was trying to save the woman's life.

The allegations against Coburn have heated up the race between Coburn and Democratic Rep. Brad Carson (search), who are competing to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Don Nickles (search). At stake could be control of the Senate, where the GOP has a slim majority.

Coburn has said he performed the procedure during a 1990 operation to remove an ectopic pregnancy (search), a dangerous condition in which an embryo was growing in one of the woman's fallopian tubes. He surgically removed the tube and tied off the other one, leaving her sterile.

"You know, in the middle of the night, I got up and saved this young woman's life," Coburn said in the debate, broadcast nationally on NBC's "Meet the Press" as part of a series involving competitive Senate races.

The woman sued, claiming she had not given permission for the surgery, but the case was later dropped, and there was no settlement.

"She asked me and her mother asked me on the way to the operating room to make sure it didn't happen again," Coburn said. "She had asked me before for that. This was brought to a court of law. It was thrown out by a judge."

Coburn has said he received oral permission for the sterilization, but a nurse failed to get written consent.

In other issues, host Tim Russert asked Carson to explain what he meant by calling himself a "maverick."

"A maverick is someone who breaks with his party to help our state, to help our country, who works in a bipartisan fashion to achieve constructive results," Carson said.

He said Coburn is a "gadfly," or a persistent critic whose votes against road funding have hurt Oklahoma.

Coburn denied that his vote against a highway spending proposal in 1999 cost the state $15 million. "I put every project in that bill that the Oklahoma Department of Transportation asked me to put in that bill," he said.

Coburn denied Carson's assertion that he opposes the Patriot Act (search), but acknowledged he had concerns about it.

The former congressman also defended his statement that the Senate race involved "good versus evil," asking whether it is good for the government to saddle future generations with debt.

"Is that good or is it evil to steal from your grandchildren?" Coburn asked. "Those are critically important issues for the future of our country and the culture of our country."

He said he never meant to portray himself as "good" and Carson as "evil."

Carson said he opposes Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's plan to roll back tax cuts for wealthy Americans and supports President Bush's war in Iraq.

Carson said Congress can move "probably close to fiscal balance" by cutting out waste and fraud, eliminating corporate tax loopholes and eliminating unnecessary government agencies.

Coburn said he would outlaw all abortions except to save the life of the mother. Asked about saying he favors the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions, he said: "I think we have to use the law that's on the books to respond to that, I sure do."