You can imagine the surprise of the pro-life community when a senator with a 100% pro-abortion voting record (source: National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) announced that he was sponsoring pro-life legislation. He chastised pro-life groups who didn't support it on the grounds that they were more interested in playing politics than saving the preborn. He was saying, in other words, that he was really more pro-life than they.

Funny thing, though, is that the senator decided to introduce his bill as a substitute for a piece of legislation long-sought by the pro-life movement: the bill to ban partial-birth abortions — a bill he opposed. Pro-lifers were understandably suspicious, especially since his bill would effectively allow the vast majority of partial-birth abortions (all those pre-viability) to continue.

The senator is Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), minority leader of the U.S. Senate, and his bill was entitled the Comprehensive Abortion Ban Act of 1997. Recently, some senators with impeccable pro-abortion credentials have been borrowing Sen. Daschle's tactics: using their support for the Daschle bill as an excuse for their opposition to the ban on partial-birth abortions.

How do we make sense of this? In my law-school days, my trial advocacy teacher would say that the truth could usually be found in the explanation that conformed to common sense. Or, in the words of another wordsmith: If it looks like a wolf and smells like a wolf, it probably is a wolf.

Here is what the Daschle bill prohibits: “It shall be unlawful for a physician to abort a viable fetus unless the physician certifies that the continuation of the pregnancy would threaten the mother's life or risk grievous injury to her physical health.”

“Grievous injury” is defined as either a “severely debilitating disease or impairment specifically caused by the pregnancy,” or “an inability to provide necessary treatment for a life-threatening condition.” It does not include conditions that are “not medically diagnosable,” or conditions for which “termination of pregnancy is not medically indicated.”

Even abortionists acknowledge that there are no medical conditions that absolutely require that the doctor kill the baby in order to ‘terminate the pregnancy.’

Sounds good on its face, right? Many without long experience in abortion law have been fooled.

Its first problem is medical: It allows doctors to kill a viable baby when there is no medical indication for such killing. How? By granting doctors the right to “abort” a child upon the evidence that “pregnancy termination” is required.

Most people presume that “pregnancy termination” and “abortion” are the same. They are not. When “pregnancy termination” is indicated, it means only that the mother or child has a medical condition that requires that the baby be removed from inside her — delivered, in other words. Even abortion-ists acknowledge that while there are medical conditions that could require early delivery, there are no medical conditions that absolutely require that the doctor kill the baby in order to “terminate the pregnancy.”

The second problem with the Daschle bill is that the abortionist is able to determine whether or not he has violated it. He gets to define “viability” with no limits, and he gets to exempt himself from any ban, merely by filling out a “certification” form that says that the abortion he performed is legal. If you look carefully at the “prohibition” language of the bill, you see that it is not a prohibition of aborting viable babies with certain exceptions. Rather, it only prohibits a doctor's failure to certify that the moth-er's life or grievous physical health problems indicate for a termination of pregnancy. Big difference.

There is no provision in the bill for judging whether or not the doctor's certification is the least bit credible. Abortion advocates scoffed when pro-lifers suggested that — knowing abortionists as we do — doctors would have no problem self-certifying themselves into as many “health” abortions as they wanted. But they offered no comment when Dr. Warren Hern (author of the foremost textbook on late-term abortions in the United States) stated that he would certify that any abortion met the bill's criteria of protecting a woman from death or “grievous injury to her physical health.” Why? Because some women die while giving birth, he said.

A third problem. Daschle has also made it clear that the “health” exception, which he claims to be narrow — a myth Hern has already exploded — could also encompass situations where a woman is in mental anguish, if such anguish manifests itself physically. “Mental anguish"-type abortions comprise more than 90% of all of the abortions performed in the United States today.

To some it seems downright hard-hearted to respond to a self-described “pro-life” bill with so much criticism, but this bill merits it. It is the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing.

Helen Alvaré is director of planning and information, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.