Bush Signs Bill to Ban a Type of Abortion
President Bush on Wednesday signed into law a ban on a controversial abortion procedure, implementing the most significant restriction on abortion in three decades.
The ban on the medical procedure critics call “partial-birth abortion” immediately prompted a wave of court challenges likely to leave the legality of the law in limbo for the coming election year.
Minutes after Bush signed the legislation, a federal judge in Lincoln, Neb., issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Justice Department from enforcing the law. Similar court challenges were pending in San Francisco and New York.
Opponents of the law describe it as the first federal ban of a safe medical procedure. Proponents, including the president, say that it prohibits “a terrible form of violence that has been directed against children who are inches from birth.”
“America stands for liberty, for the pursuit of happiness and for the unalienable right of life,” Bush told an overflow crowd of abortion opponents, who gave him four standing ovations during his 11-minute speech in the Ronald Reagan Building. “And the most basic duty of government is to defend the life of the innocent. Every person, however frail or vulnerable, has a place and a purpose in this world.”
In the 30 years since the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade that established constitutional protection for ending a pregnancy as long as the fetus could not live on its own, Congress has passed many measures restricting funding for abortions. This is the first federal law to criminalize an established abortion procedure.
Under the new law, doctors would face fines and up to two years in prison for knowingly performing such a procedure.
The vast majority of abortions -- more than 90%, according to Planned Parenthood -- are performed in the first three months of pregnancy and would be unaffected by the new law, which bans certain practices usually performed in the second trimester as part of a type of abortion physicians call “dilation and extraction.”
Abortion opponents use the term “partial birth” because the procedure involves partially removing an intact fetus from the womb before it is destroyed. Typically, before the head emerges, scissors are used to penetrate the skull and brain matter is removed.
The two sides of the debate differ about the frequency of such procedures. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, estimated about 2,200 dilation-and-extraction abortions were performed in 2000, up from 363 in 1996. Abortion opponents say that figure is too low. In either case, they are a small fraction of the 1.3 million abortions performed nationally in 2000, the latest year for which figures are available.
The lawsuits attempting to block enforcement of the law were filed Friday by three abortion-rights groups on behalf of their affiliated doctors.
The Nebraska suit was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of four doctors practicing in that state, and the restraining order by U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf officially applies only to them. However, the impact could extend beyond the state because the doctors are also licensed to practice in Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, New York, South Carolina and Virginia.
The Planned Parenthood Federation filed the San Francisco lawsuit on behalf of their doctors and staff nationwide, and a hearing on their request for a temporary restraining order is set for today. The case in New York was brought jointly by the National Abortion Federation and the American Civil Liberties Union.
At issue in all three suits is whether the ban includes an exception under which physicians could perform the procedure to protect the health of the mother. The groups contend that the new law contains no such exception and is therefore unconstitutional under existing legal precedents. They also argue that the language of the law is so broad that it could apply to a far larger number of abortions than proponents claim, especially those in the second trimester, and make it difficult for doctors to make the safest decisions for their patients.
The law’s supporters insist that the procedure is elective and not medically necessary, and so it is unnecessary to include an exception in the bill for procedures undertaken to protect the mother’s health.
At a hearing in New York on whether to issue a temporary restraining order, U.S. District Judge Richard Conway Casey’s toughest questions focused on that issue. In 2000, the Supreme Court overturned a Nebraska law banning “partial-birth” abortions because it failed to include such an exception. That ruling made at least 12 state bans unconstitutional on similar grounds.
By deliberately not including such an exception in the new federal law, Casey said, “Are they not in fact trying to trump the Supreme Court? Doesn’t this kind of knock the finality of Supreme Court rulings into a cocked hat?”
Congress twice sent legislation to President Clinton. He vetoed both bills, citing the lack of an exception for the mother’s health.
The abortion issue is a complicated one for Bush, who has made no secret of his antiabortion convictions. Opinion polls indicate Americans remain split fairly evenly on whether abortion should remain legal, with substantial numbers of Republicans on both sides of the issue.
However, religious conservatives, for whom social issues like abortion are central, represent about 40% of Bush’s electoral base.
Although he made no secret of his views as a candidate, he has soft-pedaled the issue as president -- as did his father as president and President Reagan before him.
“This is going to be just about the last time Bush mentions abortion for the next year,” said Larry Sabato, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia. “Even a sizable chunk of Republicans are pro-choice, as [Gov.-elect Arnold] Schwarzenegger shows.”
Times staff writer Josh Getlin in New York and Associated Press contributed to this report.
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