Ban on `partial-birth abortion’ a step closer to becoming law

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Thursday to ban what opponents call “partial-birth abortion,” and the Senate is expected to agree on Friday, sending the measure to President Bush, who says he will sign it into law.

Once Bush does, that will impose the first legal restriction on abortions permitted in the United States since the historic 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade affirmed that women have a constitutional right to choose abortions.

The House voted 281-142 for the ban, with 63 Democrats joining most Republicans in favor. Four Republicans joined a majority of Democrats to oppose the ban.

The measure prohibits a procedure in which a fetus emerges partway from the womb and a doctor punctures its skull to terminate the pregnancy, usually in the second or third trimester.

“Allowing such an gruesome procedure coarsens our culture and violates our country’s commitment to protecting innocent life,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Champions of abortion rights vowed to challenge the measure in court, but proponents of the new ban said they were confident it would be upheld. The House and Senate previously voted twice for the ban, but President Clinton vetoed those bills in 1996 and 1997.

Proponents of abortion rights fear the measure is the start of a larger attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade. The final version of the bill stripped out wording that was approved initially by the Senate affirming the 1973 ruling.

“This is nothing but a veiled attempt to undermine Roe v. Wade,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

The key objection raised by opponents is that the bill does not provide an exception for physicians who think that a woman’s health would be endangered if her pregnancy were not terminated, and therefore, they say, the bill may be unconstitutional.In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a similar Nebraska law lacking such a “health-of-the-mother” exception was unacceptable. It also said that the state law did not provide an adequate medical definition of the procedure to be banned.”Clearly the U.S. Supreme Court has said a health exception is a necessity. This (legislation) is not going anywhere,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. NOW intends to support lawsuits against the measure, to be filed by the National Abortion Federation and the American Civil Liberties Union. They will also try to stop the administration from enforcing the law while it is before the courts.

“This is viable legislation,” countered Douglas Johnson, president of the National Right to Life Committee.

During negotiations on the final legislative language, Republicans rejected an amendment, offered by Rep. Jerold Nadler, D-N.Y., that would have included a health exception. They also defeated an alternative to the partial-birth abortion ban that would have prohibited abortions on fetuses that could survive outside the womb. Instead, Republicans addressed the expected court challenge by including “congressional findings” that a partial-birth abortion is never medically necessary and endangers a mother’s health. Those conclusions are in dispute. The legislation also graphically describes the abortion procedure.

The bill also says that doctors who perform such late-term abortions could be jailed for up to two years. Fathers of aborted fetuses could seek damages.