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Abortion foes make doctors their next enemy

If you want to freeze-frame a single image for the Abortion '95 Yearbook, try this one: A close-up of Sen. Robert Smith and his pink plastic fetus.

For a few extraordinary minutes during the Senate's roughshod ride over Dr. Henry Foster, the New Hampshire Republican offered an inflammatory diatribe. With the fetus doll in one hand, and illustrations in the background, he ranted about "partial birth abortions."

This had about as much to do with Henry Foster as anything else that happened in the final days when the doctor's nomination and reputation became a pingpong ball in the presidential ego match between candidates Dole and Gramm. But it was a perfect picture of the updated anti-abortion strategy in the latest phase of its trench warfare.

Using his fetus doll and his pointed scissors, Smith narrowed the cast of the moral debate down to two characters: the innocent fetus and the guilty doctor. Excuse me, the innocent child and the guilty abortionist. Or as Smith suggested in the escalating language of the anti-abortion right: the baby and the murderer.

What was missing in this bizarre discussion? For one thing, a portrait of the real fetus. Most of the minuscule number of late abortions _ four one-hundredths of 1 percent of all abortions _ are not picture-perfect dolls but tragically deformed fetuses with little or no chance of life.

But the other missing part of the story was of course the pregnant woman. Her health, the real possibility that this pregnancy threatened her life, her pain at choosing to bear or abort such a deformed fetus, her decision _ all were absent.

The senator didn't chastise her or call her a murderer. He ignored her. The human "container" of the pink plastic fetus simply never got into the picture.

This is what's happening now. With women's basic right to choose secured by the courts and supported by the public, the pro-life movement has switched from trying to make abortion illegal to trying to make it impossible. And the easiest target on their screen is the doctors.

One part of the strategy comes from the grass-roots level, where the word "target" is all too literal. The extremist order of the day is the terrorism and even murder of doctors like David Gunn and John Britton. It's also intimidating medical students with threatening letters and "joke books" in the mailbox: "What do you call 2,000 abortionists chained to the bottom of the sea? Not enough abortionists."

Another part of the strategy is to turn doctors into pariahs. In defeating Foster, both Dole and Gramm were collaborators, demonstrating that any doctor who provided this medical service could be disqualified from public service.

The third part is through legislation. Among the dozen or so bills rolling through Congress in the past weeks _ bills that would ban military women overseas from getting an abortion with their own money, bills that would take abortion coverage out of all federal health plans, bills that would ban Medicaid payments for abortions in cases of rape and incest _ two of the most clever and damaging are aimed directly at doctors.

The bill Smith supports would ban a late-abortion procedure _ even if it's the safest one available _ and turn doctors into criminals. If Congress can ban one medical procedure, it can, of course, ban the rest.

The other bill would undo the medical profession's abortion-training requirement for ob-gyns. This requirement, which already has a conscience clause for doctors who object, was established to increase the number of doctors who know how to perform abortions.

What it all adds up to is a kind of supply-side strategy. In its hardened phase, the pro-life movement seems to have given up making their case to pregnant women. They've given up on reducing the demand. They're in the business of reducing the supply.

In this climate, it's not surprising that a United States senator uses the same incendiary language _ "abortionists," "murder" _ as the assassins who shot David Gunn and John Britton. They are all on the same track.

When Smith and his fetus doll left the Senate podium, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., challenged him: "If you want to outlaw abortion, if you want to make it a crime . . . bring that legislation to the floor. I'll debate you toe-to-toe, and I'll win that battle."

She's right. And that's precisely why the anti-abortion leaders have shifted the battleground. It's a different struggle now. The question is whether women will be left with the hollow legal right to choose abortion and no doctor who dares to provide it.

The Boston Globe Newspaper Co.