Senate panel hearing derails abortion bill Rights advocates stop controversial bid to ban late-term procedure

November 09, 1995|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Abortion-rights advocates in the Senate yesterday derailed a controversial bill that would outlaw "partial-birth" abortions, a development that abortion foes conceded was a resounding defeat for their legislative agenda.

The anti-abortion bill, passed overwhelmingly by the House last week, was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the measure is certain to be significantly altered, with perhaps the most controversial provisions deleted.

As written, the legislation would ban a rare but gruesome procedure associated with late-term abortions -- making it the first medical procedure ever to be banned by Congress.

The bill's backers said the procedure is inhumane and amounts to murder. But critics said women have few, if any, feasible alternatives in certain life-threatening situations, especially late in pregnancy. They also argued that a woman's right to choose must not be abridged by Congress.

In the end, however, it was their demand for legislative hearings on such a technical issue that carried the day.

"This may be one of those occasions where the floor debate changed minds," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who proposed the motion to send the controversial measure to the committee.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer, who led the Democratic fight against the bill, agreed. She said the argument was won gradually by "stressing process, rationality and the extremism of putting a physician in jail for the first time."

In addition to banning "partial-birth abortions," the bill would punish doctors who perform the procedure with prison terms of up to two years or fines, or both.

The legislation would grant doctors a defense against criminal -- prosecution and civil lawsuit if they could prove they "reasonably believed" the procedure was necessary to save a woman's life and that "no other procedure would suffice for that purpose."

Under the controversial procedure, a physician extracts a fetus, feet first, from the womb and through the birth canal until all but its head is exposed. Then the tips of surgical scissors are thrust into the base of the fetus' skull, a suction catheter is inserted through the opening, and the brain is removed.

Backers of the technique say that it is typically performed only in late-term pregnancies to save a woman's life or to abort a fetus that is discovered to be severely deformed and unlikely to survive long after birth.

But Republican Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, the bill's sponsor, called the abortion technique "a brutal, cruel way to kill a child." Sen. Phil Gramm called the procedure "an act that any civilized society should find offensive."

Mr. Gramm acknowledged, just before the final 90-7 vote, that the bill would be doomed if sent to the Judiciary Committee. "It is going to be killed," the Texas Republican predicted. "We will not see it again."

To abortion-rights advocates, a central flaw in the bill is the absence of a provision to exempt physicians from prosecution in cases where the life or health of the pregnant woman is at stake -- the linchpin of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 landmark ruling in Roe vs. Wade.

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