Hoyer tries again to block ban on 'partial-birth' abortions Alternate bill offered as Congress tries 2nd time to override Clinton veto

July 23, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As the House prepared to vote today on whether to override President Clinton's veto of a ban on an abortion method critics find particularly offensive, Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer led a small group of lawmakers who called instead for a ban on nearly all late-term abortions.

Twice during this Congress, Clinton vetoed bills to outlaw the controversial procedure, which critics have dubbed "partial birth" because it is performed in the birth canal. While the House is expected for the second time to secure enough votes to override the president, the bill's prospects are less certain in the Senate.

But Hoyer, a strong supporter of abortion rights, is making his second attempt to derail the procedure ban in the House. He is trying to appeal to lawmakers who object to late-term abortions, regardless of the method.

He is trying to convince them to support instead his alternative proposal, which would focus on the timing of an abortion, while leaving the method of choice up to doctors and their patients.

Abortion opponents call Hoyer's proposal a ruse.

Hoyer and his allies, however, are offering the alternative because they do not think Congress should be intervening in medical decisions by banning a specific practice.

"The partial-birth abortion bill has as its purpose the elimination of a particular procedure to effect an abortion at any time," said Hoyer, who represents Southern Maryland. "It is inaccurate and misleading to define [the bill], as many proponents and press reports have, as a prohibition on late-term abortions."

At a news conference yesterday, Hoyer resurrected his alternative measure, first drafted in March 1997, to outlaw abortions carried out after the 24th week of pregnancy, when a fetus is generally considered able to survive outside the mother's womb.

Maryland law allows abortion until the time when the fetus might be viable outside the womb. Later in pregnancy, abortion is allowed only if the health or life of the woman is in danger, or if the fetus is grossly deformed.

Of the 1.4 million abortions performed each year, about 840 occur after the 24th week of pregnancy, according to figures from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research group. There are no credible statistics on how many so-called partial-birth abortion procedures are carried out each year, advocates say.

Hoyer's measure, co-sponsored with Rep. James C. Greenwood of Pennsylvania, a Republican who also supports abortion rights, would allow exceptions for aborting pregnancies that threaten the life or health of the woman.

As things stand, Hoyer's measure stands no chance of passing today because House GOP leaders will not allow it to come up for a vote.

Even so, the Hoyer bill drew sharp criticism from GOP Reps. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Charles T. Canaday of Florida, the author of the bill to ban the controversial procedure. In a sharply worded letter sent Tuesday to colleagues, the two Republicans noted Hoyer had earlier said mental health reasons were cause enough to allow abortions under the bill.

In addition, Hyde and Canaday wrote: "The Hoyer-Greenwood bill places no restriction whatever -- not even a symbolic limitation -- on partial-birth abortions performed before an individual baby can be proven to [be] 'viable'."

The procedure, which anti-abortion lawmakers have described in graphic detail, involves partially removing a fetus feet-first from the womb and then draining the skull of brain fluid. Some advocates of Canaday's bill acknowledge that it might not lead to a overall reduction in abortions because other methods could be used.

But an official for a major consortium of physicians who perform abortions criticized the Canaday bill for attempting to limit other kinds of abortions as well. "The language applies to most abortion procedures, including those done in the first trimester," said Stephanie Mueller, spokeswoman for the National Abortion Federation. "The definition is purposefully broad."

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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