Senate OKs Bill to Curb Abortions

Times Staff Writer

The Senate on Thursday easily passed a Republican-sponsored bill that would ban a controversial form of abortion, making it virtually certain the measure will become law.

The GOP-controlled House is expected to swiftly approve the bill that would subject doctors to prison time if they perform the procedure critics call "partial birth" abortion. President Bush has vowed to sign the bill, and praised the Senate for taking an "important step toward building a culture of life in America."

Upon becoming law, the ban would be the first federal statute criminalizing an established abortion method since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe vs. Wade, said pregnant women have a right to chose abortion before the time the fetus can live on its own.

Although the bill would not bar abortions, it would limit how a doctor performs the procedure.

Abortion-rights groups, which contend the bill is the first step in outlawing abortions, condemned the measure, which passed the Senate 64 to 33.

"Doctors no longer will be able to decide what is best for the health of their patients," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, formerly known as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights League. "Politicians in Washington have decided they know best."

Although the Senate's action represented a major triumph for abortion opponents, the often-bitter eight-year struggle over the procedure is expected to continue, moving from the Capitol to the courts.

"We'll be prepared to challenge it as soon as it is enacted into law," said Louise Melling, director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a similar ban on such abortion procedures because, the justices said, it would force some women to undergo riskier surgery.

The procedure, its critics say, is usually performed during the second trimester of pregnancy. The vast majority of abortions are performed during the first trimester.

As described in graphic detail on the Senate floor, the measure is intended to prohibit a method of abortion in which part of the fetus is pulled from the womb into the birth canal feet first. Before the head emerges, scissors are used to penetrate its skull.

Most legal experts think the bill, if it becomes law, is also vulnerable to being struck down.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush hopes to continue to work with Congress on "steps that can be taken to welcome a culture of life, including increasing support for adoption."

Emboldened social conservatives prepared to step up efforts to advance other favorite causes, such as government aid for faith-based charities and adding a requirement for "abstinence education" to welfare reform legislation.

A spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a conservative group that focuses on social issues, said the group also plans to make a "big push" for passing a ban on human cloning -- which already has cleared the House -- and a bill that would make it a crime to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion in order to evade a parental notification law.

But in a narrowly divided Senate, much of the conservative agenda could run into the kind of Democratic resistance that has blocked Bush's effort to appointment conservative Miguel A. Estrada to the federal bench.

Thursday's vote "shows that conservatives can win when they pick their targets carefully," said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "But they don't have the strength for sweeping victories across the whole issue agenda."

Abortion has been a contentious issue in Congress for years, with more than 1,000 legislative proposals related to it introduced since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling. These have included proposed constitutional amendments to overturn the court ruling, but all such efforts have failed.

In recent years, abortion opponents revised their strategy by pushing for more incremental measures, such as restricting the use of federal funds for abortions.

The ban on the abortion procedure has enjoyed support from some lawmakers who describe themselves as pro-choice because they see the procedure as extreme.

The Senate vote was "a pretty good reflection of public opinion, which is ambivalent toward abortion," Pitney said. "On the one hand, most people oppose a blanket ban on all abortions.... On the other hand, people dislike abortion and favor restrictions, especially when it comes to 'partial birth' abortion."

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who voted for the ban, said, "I believe in a woman's right to choose." But he said this was "not a defensible procedure."

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who also supported the ban, said she was keeping a campaign promise.

"My state feels very strongly about ending 'partial birth' abortion," she said. "Even though I classify myself as pro-choice ... Roe v. Wade did not give the right to a woman to end a pregnancy at any time, under any condition...."

The Senate bill won the support of 16 Democrats, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, as well as 48 Republicans.

California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, were among the 29 Democrats, three Republicans and one independent voting against the measure.

The bill would make it a crime to "deliberately and intentionally

Congress approved similar legislation in 1995 and 1997, but the bills were vetoed by President Clinton. Prospects for the legislation brightened after Bush won the White House in 2000 and Republicans took over the Senate in last November's election.

"How times have changed," said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who expects the House in April to approve a ban of the abortion procedure that he is sponsoring. The measure is co-sponsored by more than one-third of the House.

Physicians would be permitted to perform the procedure only to save a pregnant woman's life. If doctors knowingly violate the law, they would be subject to prison terms of up to two years and fines, or both. The measure would allow the father or, if the birth mother is under age 18, the mother's parents to file a civil lawsuit seeking damages from the doctor.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a physician, said that among the 1.3 million abortions performed in 2000, the procedure was used 2,200 times. But other supporters of the measure said there are no reliable figures on how many abortions could be affected by the legislation.

During debate on the bill Wednesday, the Senate approved a nonbinding resolution expressing support of the Roe vs. Wade decision. Thursday's vote ended three days of often impassioned and angry debate.

Supporters of the ban described the abortion procedure as "barbaric," "morally offensive" and the "closest thing to infanticide." Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the measure's chief sponsor, said the procedure was "not good for the soul of America."

The bill's opponents -- ranging from abortion-rights advocates to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists -- objected that the measure would thrust government into what should be personal medical decisions made by women and their physicians.

During the debate, opponents read letters from women describing how the procedure was necessary to protect their health in pregnancies that went awry.

Opponents contend the measure contains the same flaws as a Nebraska "partial birth" abortion ban struck down by the Supreme Court in 2000, such as failing to allow the procedure to protect a woman's health.

The Senate rejected Democratic-sponsored amendments that would have allowed for such an exception; opponents said it would be overly broad, allowing use of the procedure, for example, if a doctor felt it was necessary for a woman's emotional well-being.

"This vote will not be the final word on this issue," said Michael Bohnen, chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which opposes the ban.

The bill's sponsors contend they drafted the measure to withstand a legal challenge.

They contend the measure provides a more precise definition of the procedure to address concerns that the previous language was vague and would apply to other abortion procedures.

The National Right to Life Committee called the vote "an important first step in restoring the respect for innocent human life that should be part of any compassionate, humane society."

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