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Letter to Joseph Cardinal Bernardin on Partial Birth Abortion Legislation

April 10, 1996

Dear Cardinal Bernardin:

I want to thank you for your letter on H.R. 1833. I appreciate and considered the strong moral convictions you expressed.

This is a difficult and disturbing issue, one which I have studied and prayed about for many months. I am against late-term abortions and have long opposed them, except where necessary to protect the life or health of the mother. As Governor of Arkansas, I signed into law a bill that barred third trimester abortions, with an appropriate exception for life or health, and I would sign such a bill now if it were presented to me.

Indeed, when I first heard the procedure referred to in H.R. 1833 described, I thought I would support the bill. But as I studied the matter and learned more about it, I came to understand that this is a rarely used procedure, justifiable as a last resort when doctors judge it necessary to save a woman's life or to avert serious health consequences to her.

In the past months, I have learned of several cases of women who desperately wanted to have their babies, who were devastated to learn that their babies had fatal conditions and would not live, who wanted anything other than an abortion, but who were advised by their doctors that this procedure was their best chance to avert the risk of death or grave harm which, in some cases, would have included an inability to ever bear children again. For these women, this was not about choice. This was not about having a headache or fitting into a prom dress, as some have regrettably suggested. This was not about choosing against having a child. These babies were certain to perish before, during or shortly after birth. The only question was how much grave damage was going to be done to the woman.

In short, I do not support the use of this procedure on an elective basis where it is not necessary to save the life of the woman or prevent serious risks to her health.

That is why I implored Congress to add a limited exemption for the small number of compelling cases where use of the procedure is necessary to avoid serious health consequences. The life exception in the current bill fails to cover cases where the doctor believes not that the mother's death is probable, but rather that, without the procedure, serious physical harm, often including losing the ability to have more children, is very likely to occur. I want to say again that if Congress will amend the bill as I have suggested, remedying its constitutional and human defect, I will sign the bill.

Again, I thank you for your concern. These are painful and sobering issues. I understand your desire to eliminate the use of a procedure you see as inhumane. But to eliminate it without taking into consideration the rare and tragic circumstances in which its use may be necessary would be, in my judgment, even more inhumane.

Although I know you disagree with me on this matter, I hope we can continue our dialogue and continue to work together on the broad array of issues on which we do agree. I need your help and your insight.



NOTE: The letter was made available by the Office of the Press Secretary on April 10, but was not issued as a White House press release.

William J. Clinton, Letter to Joseph Cardinal Bernardin on Partial Birth Abortion Legislation Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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