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House Votes to Ban Rare Form of Abortions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By a lopsided margin, the House voted Wednesday to ban a rare but gruesome procedure associated with late-term abortions. But the White House quickly said President Clinton has serious concerns about the bill and “cannot support” it.

The Administration statement did not say flatly that Clinton would veto the measure if it reaches his desk. But that question could be moot because the anti-abortion bill faces a likely filibuster in the Senate, as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) made clear minutes after the House’s action.

The bill was approved by a vote of 288 to 139, with 73 Democrats joining 215 Republicans in a move that would create federal authority for the first time to regulate a specific, established medical procedure. The margin indicated there are enough votes in the House to override a Clinton veto.

In addition to banning so-called partial-birth abortions, the bill would punish doctors who perform the procedure by imposing prison terms of up to two years or monetary fines, or both.

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Moreover, the measure would allow the father or, if the birth mother is under 18, the mother’s parents to file a civil lawsuit against the administering doctor for monetary damages.

The legislation grants doctors a defense against criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits if the doctors can prove that they had “reasonably believed” that the procedure was necessary to save a woman’s life and that “no other procedure would suffice for that purpose.”

But critics said such an “affirmative defense” is all but meaningless since it would come into play only after an accused physician is arrested and charged.

“This means that it’s available to the doctor after the handcuffs have snapped around his or her wrists, bond has been posted and the criminal trial is under way,” said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.).

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The controversial abortion technique is typically performed when a woman’s life is in danger or to abort a deformed fetus that is not expected to survive.

The procedure requires a physician to extract a fetus, feet first, from the womb and through the birth canal until all but its head is exposed. Then the tips of surgical scissors are thrust into the base of the fetus’ skull, a suction catheter is inserted through the opening and the brain is removed.

The House debate was filled with impassioned, sometimes angry, rhetoric--and often saw members of the same party harshly attacking each other’s positions.

“This is a deeply divisive and a very personal issue,” said New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, one of 15 Republicans to vote against the measure.

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During the debate, members on both sides of the aisle--and of the issue--displayed graphic drawings and stomach-churning photographs to drive home their points.

“Words cannot convey the horrors of this procedure.” said Rep. Ernest Istook Jr. (R-Okla.).

Afterward, Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), the bill’s author, called the vote “an important step” toward a ban on all abortions. “Abortions and the sanctity of life are not partisan issues,” he said.

“This is probably the key pro-life vote of the 104th Congress,” added Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove).

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Abortion-rights activists harshly criticized the vote, with Schroeder urging women to view it as “a wake-up call.”

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said the vote was “the most devastating and appalling attack on a woman’s freedom to choose in the history of the House of Representatives.”

The activists said the bill amounted to a direct assault on the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortions. “The bill is so extreme that it provides no exceptions to save a woman’s life or health, thus presenting a direct constitutional challenge to Roe v. Wade,” Michelman said.

That decision held that a woman may choose to abort a pregnancy before “fetal viability,” or roughly between 23 and 28 weeks. After that, states may regulate or even ban abortions, except in cases where the life or health of the woman is at stake.

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Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), an ardent loyalist to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), parted company Wednesday with most of her GOP colleagues. But her attempt to offer an amendment that would provide for such an exception was soundly defeated.

Those who support the procedure argued that it is safer than other alternatives, including inducing labor and Cesarean section.

Abortion-rights advocates say the partial-birth procedure voted on by the House on Wednesday only occurs 100 to 200 times a year nationwide, a tiny fraction of the about 1.5 million abortions performed annually.

On the Senate side, abortion rights activists consider 37 members solidly pro-abortion rights and 45 to be firm abortion foes, leaving 17 potential swing votes, depending on the particulars of the issue. The legislation can be stalled by filibuster if enough senators vote to sustain use of the tactic, in which members put off a vote by refusing to stop debating the issue.

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After the House vote Wednesday, Boxer pledged to use Senate rules “in every way that I can to stop this madness and stand up for women.”

Clinton’s statement was far less clear. He reiterated his belief that an abortion should be “between a woman, her conscience, her doctor, and her God.” And while noting that the President believes legal abortions should be “safe and rare,” the statement added:

“The President has long opposed late-term abortions except where they are necessary to protect the life of the mother or where there is a threat to her health.

“The Administration cannot support” the Canady bill, the White House said, because it did not provide for exceptions to protect a woman’s life or health.

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The anti-abortion bill faces a probable Senate filibuster, in which members put off a vote by refusing to end debate on an issue. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) pledged to use Senate rules “in every way that I can to stop this madness and stand up for women.”


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