WASHINGTON -- Opening debate in Congress, senators hoping to ban a procedure they call partial birth abortion expressed confidence Monday they have the political clout to prevail after an eight-year struggle.
"I think the odds are very good" of having legislation signed into law, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who made the measure one of the top priorities of the new GOP majority.
Opponents conceded as much. And even before the first word was uttered on the Senate floor, the head of an abortion rights organization was looking past President Bush's promised signature on the bill to a court fight.
"We will challenge it, absolutely, without question," said Kate Michelman, head of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Congress has twice passed legislation banning the procedure, in which the fetus is partially delivered before it is aborted, but former President Clinton vetoed the bill both times. Congress appeared ready to pass a third measure in 2000, but halted its efforts after the Supreme Court struck down a state law with many similarities.
The House passed a reworked version of the bill last year, but majority Democrats refused to schedule a debate in the Senate.
Republicans won control of the Senate in last fall's elections, though, and promptly placed the bill on their list of top ten priorities.
The White House issued a statement of support to coincide with the beginning of the Senate's debate, calling enactment "both morally imperative and constitutionally permissible."
Sen. Rick Santorum, said the legislation aimed to ban a procedure performed only after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and described it in graphic detail. The fetus is partially delivered, he said, and then a scissors is "thrust into the base of the skull and...the cranial contents removed. Just to describe it here has to send shivers down your back," he added.
He described it as a procedure that is "never medically necessary, not taught in any medical school in this country, not recommended," yet is performed more than 2200 times a year.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., quickly countered that Congress should refrain from intruding on a decision between a woman and her doctor.
In addition, she said, the measure was a stalking horse for abortion foes who have a broader goal. "It's an attempt to outlaw all abortions, to take away a woman's right to choose...and criminalize abortions," she said. "And what follows from that? Women and doctors would be in jail."
The two sides clashed, as well, over constitutional issues.
Santorum, a longtime advocate for the measure, said the bill "directly addresses the constitutional problems that the Supreme Court put forward."
But Boxer and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wis., disagreed, saying it did not allow for exceptions to preserve the health of the mother. "The Supreme Court already ruled...and said you cannot come to us with a bill that does not make an exception for the health of a mother."
The measure that Republicans brought to the floor bans a procedure in which a doctor commits an "overt act" designed to kill a partially delivered fetus.
The legislation further defines "partial birth" as a case in which the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother. If the fetus were in a breech position, the ban would apply if "any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."
The legislation includes an exemption in cases in which the procedure is necessary to save the life of the mother.
Supporters say the bill is designed to ban one particular type of abortion that they say is customarily performed late in a woman's pregnancy.
Critics argue, though, that it would ban more than one type of procedure, and that it lacks an exemption to protect the health of the mother that the Supreme Court has ruled is necessary in limiting the right to abortion that was declared in a 1973 ruling.
In a 5-4 ruling in 2000 that struck down a Nebraska partial birth abortion statute, the Supreme Court said that law was vaguely worded and created an undue burden on a woman's right to choose an abortion.
The court also ruled that the state law was deficient because it failed to provide an exemption for the health of the mother.
The new bill's sponsors used an unusual approach to try and address the health issue. While the legislation is slightly over 18 pages long, the first 15 pages are rhetorical, stating that a "partial birth abortion is never necessary to preserve the health of a woman, poses serious risks to a woman's health and lies outside the standard of care."