House OKs ban on late abortions 295-136 vote means Clinton again faces bill he vetoed in '96

Fate lies with Senate

Advocates of the plan added 10 supporters since last year

March 21, 1997|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After an emotionally wrenching debate, the House voted overwhelmingly yesterday to return to President Clinton a bill he vetoed last year that would ban a procedure

critics call "partial-birth abortion."

Taking advantage of momentum in their favor, supporters of the ban picked up 10 votes since last year, to form a veto-proof majority of 295, with 136 opposed. The Senate, still thought to be five votes shy of enough to override a veto, is expected to take the matter up next month.

"We can't today repair all the damage done to the fabric of our culture by Roe vs. Wade," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision affirming a right to abortion. "But we can stop the barbarity of partial-birth abortion. We diminish our humanity if we fail."

Republican leaders blocked any votes on exceptions to the ban beyond cases where a woman's life is threatened. This stance prompted an emotional outburst from Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from Southern Maryland. Hoyer argued that exceptions should also be granted to women whose health or future ability to have children was threatened by their pregnancy.

Hoyer reminded his colleagues that his wife, Judy, died last month after a three-month battle with stomach cancer. Hoyer said he wished he had had the option of some procedure to save her.

"I couldn't do anything about the cancer that gripped her body," Hoyer told a hushed House chamber. "But if I could have done something, had she been pregnant with one of our three girls, and saved her life, by God, I would have done it.

"If the doctor had told me, 'Judy will not be able to have further children if we do not perform an abortion,' I would have said -- as much as I love my three daughters -- I would have said, 'Doctor, save Judy's life and our ability to have more children.' "

The abortion procedure in dispute has become a lightning rod, sparking acrimonious debate over why and how often it is performed. Opponents describe it as a gruesome technique, tantamount to infanticide, that is performed often on healthy women carrying healthy fetuses. Supporters say it is a rare technique, a last resort for some women facing severe health problems for themselves or their fetuses.

The procedure, known medically as "intact dilation and extraction," involves partially delivering a fetus feet-first, then inserting scissors in the base of the skull and suctioning out the brain so the head can be easily removed.

Consistent with their positions of last year, Rep. Constance A. Morella, a Republican from Montgomery County, joined Hoyer and his three fellow Maryland Democrats in voting against the ban. Maryland's three other Republicans voted in favor of the ban.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate made a tactical decision to block any changes to last year's measure -- even some refinements approved by the Judiciary Committee -- so Congress could send Clinton the identical bill he rejected last year.

Their gambit was intended to capitalize on a recent admission by Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers. Fitzsimmons admitted that he had "lied through my teeth" in earlier debate when he described the procedure as rare, perhaps numbering 450 a year, and said it was used in extreme cases when the life or health of the woman was threatened or the fetus was damaged.

In truth, Fitzsimmons said last month, thousands of such abortions are performed each year, some of them on healthy women with healthy fetuses, in the second as well as the third trimester of pregnancy.

"We want to say: 'Hey, Mr. President, we were lied to. You were lied to. So come on, sign this bill,' " Hyde said.

But Clinton said earlier this month that what had moved him in the debate last year was the personal accounts of women who said they had undergone the procedure to end pregnancies of severely deformed fetuses that would otherwise damage their bodies. Without an exception like that sought by Hoyer, Clinton has said he will not sign the bill.

Even so, the Fitzsimmons statement helped switch some votes in the House, including that of Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who is a longtime advocate of abortion rights.

"I checked with some friends of mine who are obstetricians, and I'm just not convinced this procedure is medically necessary," Shays said.

Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, also a Connecticut Republican, stuck to her earlier vote against the abortion ban. But she said she believed supporters of the ban had been highly effective in their use of charts and diagrams that depicted the late-term abortion procedure in graphic detail.

"This was a victory for pictorial politics," she said, adding that supporters of the ban had been bolstered by the Fitzsimmons statements undercutting claims that the procedure is rare.

Defenders of the procedure argue that the ban -- which would mark the first time Congress has outlawed a method of abortion -- is clearly an unconstitutional intrusion into a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy. They say they expect that the Supreme Court would eventually strike down the ban even if Congress did override a veto.

But Rep. Charles T. Canady, a Florida Republican who is a leading sponsor of the ban, argues that the disputed procedure isn't abortion at all but infanticide. "This is not about the unborn," he said. "It's about the partially born."

Hoyer, who was making his first major appearance on the House floor since his wife's death, said he had not intended to mention her in the debate.

"But there are some things you can control and some things you can't," he said. "This is something you can control."

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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