Late-term abortion ban clears Senate

House backers `confident'

Bush eager to sign bill

Rights organizations dismayed

March 14, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Opening a new phase yesterday in the volatile judicial debate over abortion rights, the Senate passed legislation banning a procedure its opponents call "partial-birth" abortion, paving the way for its enactment this spring.

The action was a triumph for the Republican Congress and for President Bush, who cheered the vote, calling the abortion method "an abhorrent procedure that offends human dignity."

The Senate's vote "is an important step toward building a culture of life in America," Bush said.

Abortion rights advocates saw the vote differently.

"It's a major strike - there's no question about that - against a woman's right to choose," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.

Jubilant Republicans, in the aftermath, declared victory in their seven-year fight to criminalize the procedure and to carve out one of the most substantial exceptions to abortion rights since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling.

"The United States Senate went on record today very strongly in support of banning this evil, heinous procedure that is outside the bounds of medicine, and outside the bounds of Roe vs. Wade," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican and the measure's chief sponsor.

Of the 64 senators who supported the ban, 17 went on record Wednesday in support of the landmark Roe decision, suggesting that they, too, believe there are some abortion procedures that fall outside of that ruling and deserve to be banned by the federal government.

But abortion rights champions decried the measure as unconstitutional and warned that the ban strikes at the heart of the Roe decision, not at its margins.

Kate Michelman, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, called the measure "just the beginning of the rollback" of the ruling.

"Today, the newly elected Senate anti-choice leadership took direct aim at a woman's right to choose by voting to criminalize safe abortion procedures and, as a result, the women of America lost critical freedoms," Michelman said.

The final vote was 64-33, with 16 Democrats joining 48 Republicans in supporting the ban, and three Republicans joining 29 Democrats and the Senate's sole independent, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, in opposing it.

Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, both Democrats, voted "no."

"I could not support the Santorum bill because it does not have an exception to protect the health of the woman," Mikulski said, noting that she supported a "sensible alternative" that had such a provision.

To Bush in spring

Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican who is the chief sponsor of a companion measure, said his bill could pass the House by the end of April, sending it to a conference committee and to Bush's desk for his signature by midspring.

The House overwhelmingly passed a similar bill during the last Congress, but it died in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats.

On two previous occasions, the legislation cleared Congress only to be vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton.

Now, Chabot said, he is "more confident than ever" that the measure will become the law of the land, "relegating this horrific procedure to a sad chapter in our history."

Still, the ban faces a less certain future in the courts, which are certain to examine it closely, especially in light of a Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that struck down a similar Nebraska statute.

Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican who has been a leader in congressional efforts to ban the procedure, sounded less than confident that, once enacted, the new law will be able to pass muster at the high court. "There's a chance it could be upheld," he said.

Message to the court

DeWine took to the Senate floor five times this week to give impassioned pleas against the procedure and, he said, to lay the groundwork for a strong legal argument for upholding the ban.

"The debate was to the Supreme Court because that's where it's going to go," DeWine said. "I was arguing, basically, to the court."

The Senate-passed measure outlaws a procedure known in medical circles as "dilation and extraction" or "D and X," in which a fetus is partially delivered, its skull suctioned and then removed from the mother.

It is used to end certain second- and third-trimester pregnancies.

Wednesday, the Senate rejected two attempts by Democrats to narrow the ban to allow exceptions for cases in which the mother's health was at risk.

Those amendments were efforts to highlight the issues raised by the Nebraska statute. In Stenberg vs. Carhart, the Supreme Court struck down that law because it did not have an exception to protect a woman's health and because, the court said, its definition of "partial-birth" abortion was so vague it could have applied to constitutionally protected abortions.

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