Senate backs limits on minors' abortions

Bill makes it a crime to take girl to another state without parents' OK

July 26, 2006|By NOAM N. LEVEY | NOAM N. LEVEY,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans pushed through legislation yesterday making it a federal crime to evade parental consent laws by taking minors across state lines for abortions.

The 65-34 Senate vote - which came just a week after a bill on stem cell research divided several leading Republicans from their anti-abortion base - gave the party another plank for its "values" agenda.

Building on parental consent requirements in many states, the vote marked another victory in the drive by abortion opponents to limit access to the procedure.

"Americans have been saying, `Can't we at least find some reasonable middle ground? Can't we find some ground to at least make some reasonable restrictions on abortion?'" said Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, who sponsored the Senate bill. "This is a reasonable piece of legislation."

The bill must be reconciled with a slightly different House measure passed last year. Republicans in both chambers said yesterday that they were confident that would be done before Congress recesses for the fall elections.

In a statement, President Bush said he would sign the legislation. "Transporting minors across state lines to bypass parental consent laws regarding abortion undermines state law and jeopardizes the lives of young women," he said.

There are no figures on the number of minors who cross state lines in an effort to avoid telling their parents that they are getting abortions. But the issue of parental notification has long been contentious.

About 35 states have laws requiring that minors either notify or get permission from their parents before getting abortions. Maryland's law requires that one parent be notified before an unmarried minor has an abortion, but it allows a physician to waive notification based on a girl's maturity or if contacting a parent would not be in her best interest.

Abortion rights activists and their mostly Democratic allies on Capitol Hill have fought for nearly a decade to head off the restriction on out-of-state travel, which in most cases would also allow parents to sue anyone who helps their child get an abortion in other states without their consent.

"We've brought up a bill that does absolutely nothing to protect girls," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, who led the opposition to the bill.

Fourteen Democrats and 51 Republicans voted for the bill. Four Republicans opposed it.

Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Democrats, voted against the measure.

The Senate vote capped a lengthy campaign to crack down on what abortion opponents charged was a nefarious practice of evading state parental consent requirements.

The House first passed a bill addressing the issue in 1998, but Democrats managed to stop it in the Senate. Since then, Republicans have pushed a series of other restrictions and requirements on women and teens seeking abortions.

In 2003, Congress criminalized a late-term abortion procedure that opponents call "partial birth" abortion. In 2004, lawmakers gave legal status to fetuses, making it a separate offense to harm a fetus in the commission of a violent federal crime.

In 2005, Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, introduced a measure to require doctors to inform women seeking an abortion that the fetus may feel pain. That bill is still in committee.

And last year, the House, by a 113-vote margin, passed its bill to restrict minors from crossing state lines to get an abortion.

Republicans are under pressure to hold on to their Senate and House majorities in November's elections, and Democrats have accused them of using the abortion bill as a means of playing to the Republican Party's conservative base.

But those championing the new abortion restrictions on minors said they have a much broader segment of the public on their side. Polls suggest there is widespread public backing for the bill, with almost three-quarters of respondents saying a parent has the right to give consent before a child younger than 18 has an abortion.

But even as the Senate passed the measure, advocates for abortion rights struck a defiant position themselves, promising to use the bill to rally their own supporters in November.

In California, Mary-Jane Wagle, who heads Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, said her organization is already working on its strategies to incorporate the congressional vote into its campaign against a parental notification initiative.

"I think this is the kind of drastic law that will help us make the case," Wagle said.

Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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