Senate OKs bill to limit abortion

Ban targets what critics call `partial birth abortion'

Rights advocates vow lawsuits

Already passed by House, bill awaits Bush signature

October 22, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Congress gave final approval yesterday to a ban on a procedure critics call "partial birth abortion," delivering to President Bush a cornerstone of his conservative agenda and imposing the first federal curb on an abortion method since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision.

The Senate's passage of the ban, after the House's approval this month, sends the bill on to Bush, who said he was looking forward to signing it. "This is very important legislation that will end an abhorrent practice and continue to build a culture of life in America," the president said in a statement.

But the measure will face a hazy future in the courts. Abortion rights and civil liberties groups plan challenges that could spark another Supreme Court review of abortion. The bill resembles a Nebraska law the court struck down in 2000 on the ground that - like the measure Congress just passed - it made no exception to protect a mother's life and health.

Final passage yesterday, on a Senate vote of 64-34, was nevertheless a victory for abortion foes, who have tried for eight years to outlaw the procedure. Over the years, the issue set off divisive and emotionally heated debates among lawmakers. Twice before, the bill had cleared Congress. Both times, it was vetoed by President Bill Clinton.

"The legislation that we just passed will save lives - not just several, but hundreds and potentially thousands of lives," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who is a physician, said after the vote. "It outlaws a procedure that is barbaric, that is brutal, that is offensive to our moral sensibilities, and it is outside the ethical practice of medicine."

Some abortion opponents cheered the Senate action as an opening for the nation to reassess the fundamental right to abortion, which the court established in its Roe vs. Wade decision.

"In 2000, five Supreme Court justices said that Roe vs. Wade guaranteed the right of abortionists to perform partial-birth abortions whenever they see fit - but Congress is now inviting the Supreme Court to re-examine that extreme and inhumane decision," said Douglas Johnson, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee.

On the other side, abortion rights supporters argued that final passage of the measure represented an assault on the landmark abortion rights ruling and on the right of women to make decisions about their own pregnancies.

"No one should be fooled as to the real intentions of this bill's sponsors: They want to take away entirely the right to personal privacy and a woman's right to choose," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The opponents are likely to seek a federal injunction blocking implementation of the ban. Courts often grant such requests when Constitutional questions are at issue.

Proponents say the measure is intended to criminalize one specific method, known to physicians as "dilation and extraction," or "D and X." In that procedure, a fetus is partially delivered, its skull is suctioned and its body removed. It is generally used to end certain second- and third-trimester pregnancies.

"This is a very, very important day for this country and for those babies who would be the object of this brutal procedure," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who is leading the effort to enact the ban.

Critics, however, warned that the ban is worded vaguely enough to outlaw not just the "D and X" procedure but also other types of abortion that are widely accepted. Some accused the bill's champions of singling out a particularly grisly procedure to try to spread doubts about abortion in general. They said the ban could make some doctors less willing to use any safe and legal method to end pregnancies.

"This is the first bill since Roe vs. Wade in 1973 that outlaws safe medical procedures and recriminalizes abortion," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "It is a major step forward in the march to obliterate a woman's right to control her own reproductive system."

The measure was drafted with the Supreme Court in mind, and it will likely inform future rulings by the court. The bill's authors included 14 pages of congressional assertions - known as "findings" - declaring that "partial-birth abortion" is dangerous and medically unnecessary.

The findings are an effort to directly answer one of the Supreme Court's conclusions in its 2000 ruling against the similar Nebraska law, which provided no exception for the mother's health. The federal bill states that the court erred in accepting the notion that dilation and extraction can, in some cases, be the only procedure to preserve a woman's health or save her life.

"This procedure is never - and I underscore that, never - necessary to protect the health of the mother," Santorum said.

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