WASHINGTON -- Congress may be on the verge of adopting a new federal restriction on abortion, thanks to a two-year campaign by anti-abortion forces that has dramatically focused attention on a controversial method used to terminate pregnancies.
Legislation banning this procedure -- which is performed in the middle to late stages of pregnancy and has been dubbed "partial-birth abortion" by its critics -- has gained nearly enough support in Congress to overcome an anticipated presidential veto.
The House is expected to pass the measure tomorrow with the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
But the ban's prospects hinge on the Senate, which will no doubt approve the ban, but a veto-proof majority is not guaranteed .
"It's very hard to get people to move from one camp to the other on the abortion issue, but I think this procedure goes well beyond what most people consider acceptable," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who is leading the drive for a ban.
Abortion rights advocates believe that the proposed ban -- which far exceeds earlier congressional restrictions on federally subsidized abortions for poor women, civil servants and military personnel -- would be an unconstitutional violation of a woman's right to end a pregnancy and that it would probably be struck down by the Supreme Court.
"But that's a game of chicken we don't want to play," said Rep. James C. Greenwood, another Pennsylvania Republican and ardent abortion rights advocate who is seeking an alternative approach.
"We are definitely on the defense."
Pressure is building on President Clinton to join the effort to prohibit the disputed procedure.
But the president, who said earlier this month that his "only concern" is protecting the woman's future ability to have children, is refusing to support the ban unless it is changed to remedy his objection.
The bill would permit an abortion only to save the life of the woman.
A similar ban was approved by both houses in the last session of Congress.
In the Senate, which unlike the House failed to override Clinton's veto, the measure has picked up momentum as the 1996 elections brought new abortion opponents to the Capitol.
Only five votes needed
Backers say they need only five more senators to beat back a veto.
Opposition to use of the disputed procedure has been building since early 1995, when anti-abortion forces raised it as an issue.
At hearings and floor debates, they used charts and drawings to vividly illustrate the process, which involves partially delivering the fetus feet first, then inserting scissors into the neck to remove the brain and collapsing the head before it emerges.
Abortion rights advocates suffered a major setback last month when a member of their ranks acknowledged that the procedure, known medically as "intact dilation and extraction," is not nearly the rare, last-resort, late-term method its supporters had insisted it was.
Admission of lies
Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, said he "lied through his teeth" during earlier debate that the procedure was rarely used and then only on women whose lives were in danger or whose fetuses were damaged.
He also told American Medical News for its March 3 issue that as many as "three or four thousand" of these abortions are performed each year, the majority of them on healthy women and healthy fetuses.
Some abortion rights advocates had placed the number in the hundreds.
Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, did not dispute Fitzsimmons' claims on the numbers.
But she denied there had been any attempt by her organization to deceive Congress, saying that the numbers involved are still very small, less than 1 percent of the roughly 1.3 million abortions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported were performed in 1994, the last year for which figures are available.
"Whether the number of women whose doctors recommend this procedure is five, five hundred or five thousand a year, each one of these numbers represents the real life of an individual woman," Michelman said.
"Under your legislation, each and every one of them would be denied the treatment her doctor believed to be the safest and most appropriate for her."
Lack of statistics
No official statistics are kept on the number of abortions performed using any particular procedure, according to Lisa Koonin, a spokeswoman for the CDC.
But the CDC says 88 percent of all abortions are performed in the first 12 weeks and 1.3 percent occur at 21 weeks or later.
Nevertheless, freshman Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, is rethinking her position on the "partial-birth abortion" ban as a result of Fitzsimmons' statements, according to a spokesman.
Many House members are also taking a new look at the issue, aides said.