President Bush may soon sign legislation that bans abortions – with no exception for the mother’s health – and would jail doctors for providing what is in some cases life-and-death reproductive health care to women across America. Members from the House and Senate met in conference and resolved their differences in the two versions of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

The imminent passage of the first bill to ban abortions since the Roe v. Wade decision leads me to meditate on the words of former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.). He once told me and three other pro-choice leaders: “I think the four of you have become very hardened, very cold, very callous … you really have developed, I’m sad to say, a moral blind spot.”

The occasion was a congressional hearing back in 1997 on the same abortion ban. I had testified that Congress should not practice medicine and that reproductive health decisions should be made by women with their families and physicians, not by government. The U.S. Supreme Court in Stenberg v. Carhart had subsequently found a similar bill unconstitutional.

This “morality” tale is once more on my mind as I watch the anti-choice juggernaut (again) sweep the so-called “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban of 2003” through Congress and onto the desk of George W. Bush. Distrusting women as moral decision makers, Congress is set to pass a broadly written ban that would outlaw some of the safest and most common abortion procedures.

These legislators include Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) who is in no position to be passing moral judgment on anyone. As part of his bigoted statement equating homosexuality with polygamy, he also took a swipe at reproductive privacy, telling an AP reporter: “It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn’t exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution, this right that was created, it was created in Griswold – Griswold was the contraceptive case – and abortion. And now we’re just extending it out.”

Rick Santorum and his cronies in Congress are doing nothing to pass legislation to help women who need to make life-saving reproductive choices. Instead, these legislators are telling us whose conscience counts and – according to them – it’s not mine, it may not be yours and it is certainly not those of the majority of Americans who support reproductive freedom.

And what about Bob Barr’s moral blind spot? How can someone who advocates tirelessly to criminalize abortion rationalize paying for his second ex-wife’s abortion? (The check he wrote was shown on national television.)

This draconian abortion ban bill is unconstitutional because it does not have an adequate exception for the health of the woman, which is required according to Stenberg. Democrats on the conference panel tried twice to create a health exception to the ban, but Republicans defeated them in two sets of party-line votes. Earlier this year, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sponsored amendments to the Senate bill that would have provided family planning initiatives to reduce unintended pregnancy and improve access to prenatal and post-partum care for women. How can legislators who abhor abortion reject amendments that would reduce the need for abortion?

I wonder what the Bob Barrs and Rick Santorums of the world really want when they question the moral integrity of women to make their own childbearing decisions. They can’t argue that they want improved lives for women and children. A study conducted by Catholics for a Free Choice found that members of Congress who oppose abortion are also more likely to vote against social programs that benefit women, children and families.

It is not an act of conscience to refuse to provide family planning and abortion services. It is an act of discrimination. Often it is an act of medical malpractice. Always it is a refusal to provide legal and medically appropriate options to a patient whose conscience should be considered above all others.

A few days after the 1997 congressional hearing, I appeared on a television show to debate a congressman who is virulently opposed to abortion. Throughout the program, my gaze kept drifting to a young woman makeup artist. She stayed on the set throughout the taping and watched the proceedings with a stricken look. Afterward, she told me that this was her first day back after having an abortion. Her wanted pregnancy, you see, had gone terribly, tragically wrong. “Don’t these politicians understand?” she said. “This is about women’s health.” I wish she could have posed the question to the congressman, but I suppose he hadn’t seen her. Something must have blocked his view.

Gloria Feldt is president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. This article originally appeared on www.TomPaine.com