House votes to ban method of abortion Doctors could be fined, imprisoned for rare, late-term procedure

White House promises veto

Bill's opponents decry 'attack on woman's freedom to choose'

November 02, 1995|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- For the first time since the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in 1973 upholding a woman's right to abortion, the House voted yesterday to ban a particular method of abortion and impose criminal penalties on doctors who use it.

The 288-139 vote was limited to a highly specialized procedure, known medically as intact dilation and evacuation, which is performed only after 20 weeks of gestation. Although even the most ardent abortion foes concede that a challenge to the legality of abortions is years away, the vote put Congress on that path.

The method that the legislation would ban involves partially extracting a fetus, feet first, and collapsing the skull in the birth canal by suctioning out the brain.

Only 13,000 of the country's 1.5 million abortions are performed at 20 weeks of gestation or later, and the method that the legislation would ban is rarely used, even in those late-term abortions. Doctors say the reasons women seek late-term abortions range from fetal abnormalities to maternal health problems to teen-agers' failure to recognize and deal with a pregnancy earlier. There are no precise statistics on which categories account for how many abortions.

Opponents of the method that the legislation would ban, which they call a "partial birth" abortion, have disseminated graphic drawings to newspapers and magazines in recent weeks.

"I think this is a step forward in the battle to protect the unborn in this country," Rep. Charles T. Canady, a Florida Republican and the bill's sponsor, said after the hourlong emotional debate and vote. "That battle will be waged over an extended period of time. The Supreme Court has in place a legal structure which protects abortion rights in this country, and something has got to be done to change that before we can put in place truly meaningful protection for the unborn."

Dr. Warren Hern, a Colorado doctor who wrote the standard textbook on abortion practice, said: "The medical community has not determined the very best way to do late-term abortions, which are uncommon anyway. This method is a minor variation on what I've done for 20 years and could be absolutely necessary under some medical circumstances. But what's important is that the decision be left to the doctor."

A bill similar to the House measure is pending in the Senate, where the minority leader, Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota, said he believed there was "a significant degree of support."

Some Senate Democrats vowed yesterday to lead a filibuster, if necessary, to defeat the legislation.

The White House said that if the bill reached President Clinton's desk, he would veto it because it "fails to provide for consideration of the need to preserve the life and health of the mother."

It was the first time that the House had voted on a stand-alone abortion bill. Before, restrictions on abortion had arisen only as amendments or so-called riders to other bills. There are four such riders on 1996 spending bills that would limit federal financing of abortions.

Joining the 215 Republicans who voted for the measure were 73 Democrats, among them members whom abortion-rights groups had traditionally looked to for swing votes. The 123 Democrats who voted against the bill were joined by 15 Republicans and the lone independent in the chamber.

The House debate was punctuated with angry outbursts from some members and near-tearful pleadings from others.

"As a woman today standing in this chamber, I feel like I'm in a chamber of horrors," said Democratic Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado in opposition to the bill.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, argued for the bill and called the procedure a "macabre, gruesome, Auschwitz-like operation."

Mr. Canady's bill includes a section that allows a doctor to argue, as a defense against prosecution, that the procedure was necessary to save the life of the mother. But the doctor must also prove that "no other procedure would suffice for that purpose."

"I would hasten to add that I don't believe that this procedure is ever necessary to save the life of the mother," Mr. Canady said.

If the House version becomes law, doctors who perform the procedure would face felony prosecution, with a maximum penalty of two years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

The bill was a major test for both sides in the abortion debate, and the outcome showed an erosion of support for abortion-rights forces.

"Today's vote is the most devastating and appalling attack on a woman's freedom to choose in the history of the House," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "This 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 vs. Wade."

Abortion opponents believed that the use of medical drawings became a major weapon in the fight.

"We believed that it was very important if we could get lawmakers to look at the documentation, that this procedure involves pulling a living baby out of the womb," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the national Right to Life Committee, the nation's largest anti-abortion organization.

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