Partial birth abortion ban clears House

Friday, October 3, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The House voted decisively Thursday for the first ban of an abortion procedure since the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling that women have a right to end their pregnancies. Strongly supported by President Bush, the bill could be on his desk for signature in days.

The 281-142 vote culminated an eight-year drive by the Republican-led House to end the procedure that abortion opponents call partial- birth abortion. The Senate could take up the bill as early as today and send it to the president.

"Today's action is an important step that will help us continue to build a culture of life in America," Bush said in a statement. "I look forward to the Senate passing this legislation so that I can sign this very important bill into law."

Abortion rights groups, citing court rulings striking down similar state laws, say the legislation is unconstitutional and they will challenge it as soon as it becomes law.

Doctors who violate the ban would be subject to up to two years in prison. The law would not affect women having the operation.

The legislation bans a procedure, generally in the second or third trimester, in which a fetus is partially delivered before a doctor punctures the skull. The opposing sides differ on the medical necessity or the numbers of such abortions, but they agree the bill will have far-reaching ramifications.

"Abortion will stay legal," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, a strong supporter of the restriction. But he added, "After a generation of bitter rhetoric, the American people have turned away from the divisive politics of abortion and embraced the inclusive politics of life."

Attack on rights

Opponents said the legislation was an attack on abortion rights.

"Don't ever forget, this is about Roe v. Wade," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., referring to the 1973 Supreme Court decision making abortion legal. "It's about restricting access to safe medical procedures throughout a pregnancy."

While the vote was mainly along party lines, four Republicans voted against the bill and 63 Democrats supported it.

The House has passed the bill on an almost annual basis since Republicans won control in 1995, but President Clinton twice vetoed it, saying it lacked an exception to protect the health of the mother.

The House and Senate, both by 2-1 margins, passed nearly identical bills earlier this year. The version voted on Thursday was a comprise bill agreed to this week by House and Senate negotiators.

The health factor was also key to the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in 2000 to overturn a similar Nebraska state ban. The high court also ruled that the Nebraska law was unconstitutional because its definition of partial birth -- not a medical term -- was too vague.

Writers of the bill said they had met the court's objections by tightening the definition and adding findings to show the practice is never needed for health reasons. "Partial birth abortion is dangerous to women and is never medically necessary to preserve a woman's health," said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, a chief sponsor. Chabot said the procedure is "akin to infanticide."

But Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the bill is written so that any mid- or late-term abortion could be subject to criminal charges. "What the law does is prevent doctors from using the safest medical procedures to terminate a pregnancy as early as 12 weeks," she said.

Her group is one of several that says it will file a lawsuit as soon as the bill is signed into law. The National Abortion Federation, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, will also file suit and seek to block enforcement.

Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said a key issue is whether Bush, if he wins a second term, will nominate judges to the Supreme Court who are hostile to Roe v. Wade. "This case could either be used to overturn Roe or to eviscerate the protections guaranteed by Roe," she said.

But Tony Perkins of The Family Research Council said the bill reflected a shift in American attitudes toward abortion. "This is the first time that we've seen a significant public policy move to parallel the cultural move back to a respecting of human life."

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