President Clinton on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would outlaw a controversial late-term abortion procedure, taking pains to minimize the political cost of a potentially unpopular decision.
Appearing with a group of women who have had the procedure to end pregnancies that went tragically awry, Clinton called the so-called “partial birth abortion” bill a dangerous intrusion into a decision that should rest with a woman and her doctor.
In a clear signal that he will make the president’s veto a campaign issue, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said that Clinton’s action makes it “clear there is no restriction on abortion, for any reason, [that] he would accept.”
Dole said the president “has rejected a very modest and bipartisan measure reflecting the values of a great majority of Americans. He instead embraced the extreme position of those who support abortion at any time, at any place and for any reason.”
At the White House on Wednesday, Clinton said that initially he had been sympathetic to the bill. However, he said: “I came to understand that this is a rarely used procedure, justifiable as a last resort when doctors judge it necessary to save a woman’s life or to avert serious health consequences to her.”
Clinton’s decision was cheered by groups that favor abortion rights as well as by the families who recounted the wrenching circumstances that led them to seek late-term abortions.
“I didn’t make the decision for my child to die,” said Vikki Stella of Naperville, Ill., whose unborn son’s cranium was filled with fluid and no brain tissue. “God made the decision for my child to die. I had to make the decision to take him off life support.”
“The president is a hero for vetoing this legislation,” said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation.
Opponents of the bill contended that about 500 of the late-term abortions that would have been banned take place each year--a small percentage of the roughly 1.5 million abortions performed yearly in the United States. Most, they added, are performed on women who want a baby but believe that they must end their pregnancy because it seriously threatens their health or life or because their fetuses have severe abnormalities.
But antiabortion groups, citing in part testimony of doctors who perform the procedures, maintained that thousands of “partial birth abortions” may occur yearly. Many, they said, are performed for frivolous reasons.
The bill vetoed Wednesday by Clinton would have been the first to outlaw a specific abortion procedure since the 1973 Supreme Court decision granting women the right to abortion. In the procedure--called “intact dilation and extraction” by doctors--all but the head of a fetus is delivered vaginally. Before the fetus’ head passes through the cervix, however, a catheter is inserted at the base of its skull and the contents are suctioned out so that the head can be delivered without harm to the woman’s reproductive organs.
The president’s veto effectively blocks legislation that was narrowly passed by the Senate last December and by a wide margin of 286 to 129 in the House in late March. The Senate vote of 54 to 44 indicates that proponents do not have the two-thirds majority needed to override the president’s action.
But while proponents of the measure knew that they were unlikely to prevail over Clinton’s veto, they asserted that they have scored political gains in the struggle for Americans’ sympathies.
“This debate has opened the eyes of many Americans to how terribly unprotected unborn human beings are in this country,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee Inc., an antiabortion group. “Most Americans wrongly believe that abortion is not legal after the third month, yet these partial-birth abortions are often performed not earlier than the fifth month and often much later.”
Clinton noted Wednesday that he had hoped Congress would adopt an amendment to the bill that would have allowed exceptions to protect the health of the mother. While lawmakers would waive the ban in cases where the abortion is necessary to save the mother’s life, they rejected efforts to add the waiver that the White House sought.
While the White House had telegraphed Clinton’s clear intention to veto the bill, Roman Catholic bishops last week led a candlelight vigil in front of the White House, imploring the president not to veto the bill. A poll conducted last December by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 71% of registered voters favored a ban on “partial-birth abortions.”
Other independent polls indicate that while a substantial majority of Americans believe a woman should have the right to an abortion, a large percentage believe that they should be subject to stricter limits.
Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston and chairman of the Catholic Bishops Committee for Pro-Life Activities, issued a statement calling the veto “a declaration of unconditional support for abortion--abortions under any circumstances and by any means whatsoever, even those bordering on infanticide.”
The Supreme Court, in its landmark Roe vs. Wade case, left to states the right to place limits on abortions after the second trimester of pregnancy--the point at which specialists generally agree that a fetus could survive outside the womb, given expert medical intervention. And currently, 41 states, including California, have adopted restrictions on such late-term abortions. But to the consternation of abortion foes, almost all contain broad exemptions for abortions performed in cases where the mother’s health--including emotional health--is endangered by the pregnancy.