WASHINGTON - Setting the stage for a new legal fight over abortion, the House of Representatives gave its final endorsement yesterday to a bill that would ban a procedure opponents call "partial-birth abortion," bringing the measure a step closer to becoming law.
The House approved the bill overwhelmingly, 281-142, and the Senate is expected to pass it soon. President Bush has indicated he is eager to sign the bill into law.
But abortion-rights proponents are vowing to go to court to challenge the measure, which is similar to a Nebraska law the Supreme Court struck down three years ago as unconstitutional. The legal battle could lead to the next major abortion ruling by the high court.
The ban is a top priority of Bush and his conservative base, and its impending enactment is cheered by champions and decried by critics as the first significant restriction on the right to abortion since the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973.
Rep. John Sullivan, an Oklahoma Republican, exulted that with Bush's signature, the measure would become "the first abortion-limiting law on the books since Roe vs. Wade." Sullivan called the House vote a "historic moment and a milestone for the rights of the unborn."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the House Democratic whip, denounced the bill as "nothing but a veiled attempt to undermine the Supreme Court's landmark ruling" in Roe.
On the decisive House vote, 63 Democrats and 218 Republicans voted to ban the procedure. They included Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, both Republicans, and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat.
Voting no were 137 Democrats - including the other five representatives from Maryland - four Republicans and one independent.
Even as the House was poised to approve the measure, some proponents lamented that Congress could not do more to eliminate abortion.
"When we pass this bill, abortion will still be legal, its practitioners will remain in business and heaven will still be crowded with America's invisible orphans," said Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican.
But DeLay said the bill "represents a big pivot in America's difficult answer to the abortion question."
The measure would outlaw any procedure in which a physician partially delivers a fetus, kills it, then removes its body from the mother.
Proponents of the bill say it is designed to criminalize one specific procedure - known to physicians as "dilation and extraction," or "D and X" - in which a fetus is partially delivered, its skull then suctioned and its body removed. The procedure is generally used to end certain second- and third-trimester pregnancies.
Many abortion opponents call the method barbaric and argue that the procedure is never medically necessary to save the life of a mother.
"Stop the torture and infanticide of our pre-born children," said Rep. Rick Renzi, an Arizona Republican. "Let us rid ourselves of this evil."
But critics of the measure say it would go much further. They argue that it would outlaw abortions that are constitutionally protected and would inject the government improperly into the medical decisions of pregnant women and their doctors.
The ban is "about restricting access to safe medical procedures throughout an entire pregnancy," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat. "Ultimately, it is about the right of all women to choose."
Lowey and other opponents say such a law would defy the Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that struck down a Nebraska ban on "partial-birth abortion."
In that case, the court struck down the state law on the ground that it provided no exception to protect a woman's health and because, the court said, its definition of "partial-birth" was so vague that it placed an "undue burden" on a woman's right to abortion.
Abortion-rights supporters say the same is true of this bill, which they contend is so broad that it could apply to a variety of procedures used at any stage of pregnancy.
"They've shown a callous disregard for the lives and health of women," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, which plans to bring one of three lawsuits challenging the measure.
Proponents of a ban reject such arguments and contend that the procedure is never medically necessary to protect a woman's health. Supporters say their goal in pushing the measure is to demonstrate the kind of grisly procedure that they say the Roe decision allows.
"This bill puts a spotlight on the brutal violence that premature infants suffer every day because of Roe vs. Wade, as interpreted by five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee.
The bill's authors tried to steer clear of the Nebraska ruling by narrowing their definition of "partial-birth abortion" and by including 14 pages of "findings" - essentially, congressional opinions - declaring that the method described is dangerous and medically unnecessary.
The "findings" in essence constitute a legal argument against the ruling in the Nebraska case, arguing that the court erred in accepting the notion that dilation and extraction can, in some instances, be the only procedure that could preserve a woman's health or save her life.
With the findings, Hoyer said, the bill's sponsors are "literally trying to paper over Supreme Court precedent."
Kate Michelman, president of the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, said enactment of the bill would demand a legal challenge. "This overly broad law will strike at the very heart of Roe, and creates a legal pathway to the overturn of Roe ultimately, so we have to challenge it," she said.
During final negotiations on the bill, GOP leaders struck out nonbinding language, inserted by the Senate, voicing support for the Roe vs. Wade decision.