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Conservatives Hail House Abortion Vote : Politics: Lawmakers’ approval of a ban on late-term procedure is seen as a ‘giant first step forward.’ For advocates of abortion rights, passage is a wake-up call.

From Religion News Service

Abortion foes are claiming an important symbolic victory in the House of Representatives’ approval this week of a measure to ban a rarely used late-term abortion procedure.

Among religious conservatives, it is viewed as landmark legislation that could be the first step toward outlawing abortion outright. “This was a giant step forward because for the first time Congress crossed a threshold to directly ban a procedure,” said Brian Lopina, legislative director of the Christian Coalition, the conservative political movement founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

“For the first time, they have drawn a pretty clear line in the sand not only on federal [abortion] funding issues but on direct abortion as well,” he said.

For abortion-rights advocates, passage of the measure is a wake-up call, signaling that the opposition may be gaining political momentum.

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The vote “was a great win for the pro-lifers because it gives them a success,” said Ann E. Stone, head of Republicans for Choice, which supports abortion rights. “It should be a wake-up call to the pro-choice movement. It represents a sea change in tactics” by abortion opponents.

That tactical change involves putting more emphasis on laws to incrementally ban abortion, rather than trying to ban abortion outright or enact regulations that make the procedure more difficult to obtain, she said.

The House bill would outlaw a medical procedure known as “intact dilation and evacuation,” a procedure that involves partially extracting a fetus, feet first, and then collapsing the skull in the birth canal by suctioning out the brain.

Of the 1.5 million abortions performed each year in the United States, about 13,000 are performed after 20 weeks of gestation, and only about 500 involve the disputed procedure, according to studies by national research groups.

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The bill, called the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 1995, marks the first time since the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions that Congress has moved to prohibit a specific abortion procedure.

It has yet to be approved by the Senate, and President Clinton has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches his desk because it “fails to provide for consideration of the need to preserve the life and health of the mother,” the White House said after this week’s vote.

Whether the House vote marked a major turning point in the abortion debate--or whether it was a fluke prompted by the extreme nature of the rarely used procedure--remains an open question.

“On the one hand, the vote represents a quite new, a quite remarkable situation,” said Helen Alvare, the spokeswoman on abortion issues for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Right now you have a situation where any woman can get any kind of abortion at any time. What the House has said is that now there is one kind of abortion that you cannot get. [But] this [vote] may be a unique occurrence,” she said.

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Abortion opponents, Alvare said, were able to heighten emotional response among the legislators by distributing visual images of a nearly fully developed fetus undergoing the procedure.

That will be more difficult to do when the issue is early term abortions, within the first weeks of pregnancy, she said.

Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate, but Alvare predicted that the bill will have a much tougher time winning approval there. Barbara Hallan, director of the Respect Life office of the Archdiocese of Chicago, called the vote “an extremely important victory educationally.”

“In terms of bringing down the sheer number of abortions, it is not going to do very much,” she said. “But we are able to raise peoples’ consciousness. Most people didn’t realize third-trimester abortions were legal.”

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But it may also limit the options for women caught in their own difficult personal and religious quandaries, said Rabbi Shira Stern, spiritual leader of the Monroe Township Jewish Center in Spotswood, N.J.

Stern had a late-term abortion in 1983 after doctors discovered the baby she was carrying had no discernible brain. “I was very, very disturbed” by this week’s vote, Stern said. “I firmly believe it is the first step in dismantling a woman’s right to an abortion.”


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