Thursday, June 5, 2003

A ban on partial-birth abortion is well on its way to becoming law, after the House approved it late yesterday on a 282-139 vote.

“After eight long years, Congress will finally send the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act to a president willing to sign it,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican.

“The debate over the rights of the unborn will continue, and new battles will be fought. But in the meantime, the American people will take this one stand … on behalf of the innocent,” he said.

Voting for the bill were 220 Republicans and 62 Democrats. Voting against it were 133 Democrats, five Republicans and the chamber’s lone independent. Three Republican and 10 Democratic lawmakers did not vote.

Congress has twice passed a ban on partial-birth abortion, but both measures were vetoed by President Clinton, and although the House overrode the vetoes, the Senate did not.

In a statement after the vote last night, President Bush called it “a shared priority that will help build a culture of life in America.”

“I urge Congress to quickly resolve any differences and send me the final bill as soon as possible so that I can sign it into law,” he said.

The bill now goes to conference, where it will be reconciled with a nearly identical bill that was passed by the Senate earlier this year. The measures would ban partial-birth abortions except when necessary to save the mother’s life.

In a partial-birth abortion — also known among some in the medical community as dilation and extraction — the baby is partially delivered before its skull is pierced and its brain sucked out.

Pro-choice lawmakers and groups lamented the bill’s passage, saying it is another attempt by the president and the Republicans to chip away at abortion rights. The groups vowed to challenge the legislation in court.

“We expect the president will sign it, and we will immediately go into court,” said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation. “This bill will never take effect. It will be declared unconstitutional.”

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, New York Democrat, said the “anti-woman and unconstitutional” bill was evidence of the Republican Party’s “true agenda,” which is “to roll back, chip away at a woman’s right to choose.”

Opponents of the bill say it is just as unconstitutional as a Nebraska ban struck down by the Supreme Court in 2000.

But bill sponsor Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican, says the legislation provides a more precise definition of the partial-birth-abortion procedure, thereby addressing the justices’ concerns that the Nebraska law also could have banned another abortion act in which a fetus is dismembered in the womb.

“This new legislation has been tailored to address the court’s concerns,” said Rep. Sue Myrick, North Carolina Republican.

But Miss Saporta and others maintain that the bill’s definition is vague and could encompass the other type of abortion, known as dilation and evacuation.

The Supreme Court also called the Nebraska ban unconstitutional because it did not make exceptions when the procedure was deemed necessary to preserve not just the mother’s life, but also her health.

The bill does not include a “health exception” but states that medical evidence presented in congressional hearings shows that partial-birth abortion is never medically needed, poses serious risks to women’s health and is outside the standards of medical care.

“We think we’ve crafted this legislation sufficient that it could meet a constitutional challenge,” said Mr. Chabot, who is chairman of the House Judiciary constitution subcommittee. “We fully expect a challenge. But the bottom line is this is a gruesome, inhumane, barbaric procedure that should not be allowed.”

But others disagreed, saying it is clearly unconstitutional without the health exception.

“The Supreme Court made it clear that such a health exception is required,” said Rep. Robert C. Scott, Virginia Democrat.

Before passing the bill, the House defeated an alternative put forth by House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, and Rep. James C. Greenwood, Pennsylvania Republican, aimed at banning late-term abortions. The proposal, which lost 287-133, would have banned abortions in cases in which a fetus is “viable” — defined as being able to survive outside the mother. An exception would have been made, however, if the doctor determines that the abortion is necessary to save the mother’s life or “to avert serious adverse health consequences” to her.

Mr. Hoyer said his version was a “common-sense alternative” that, unlike the underlying bill, was constitutional because it contains an exception for the mother’s health. He also said his proposal was better because it “focuses on when abortions are performed rather than how they are performed.”

Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, Connecticut Republican, who supported the Hoyer alternative, said “in certain situations you need to be able to consider health.”

But supporters of the underlying bill said the Hoyer-Greenwood proposal would not truly restrict abortions.

“It restricts nothing at all,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. “It’s only intended to provide political coverage.”

Mrs. Johnson said that under the Hoyer proposal, it would be entirely up to the doctor to determine whether a fetus is viable and whether the abortion is needed to avoid damage to the mother’s health, including her mental condition. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, said these were loopholes that would have allowed doctors who perform the abortions to continue doing so.

While the number of partial-birth abortions that occur each year is disputed, Mr. Chabot said the expert consensus is that about 2,200 to 5,000 are performed annually in the country.

A Gallup poll in January found that 70 percent of the public favors a ban on the procedure.

The key difference between the nearly identical House and Senate partial-birth-abortion-ban bills is that the Senate adopted language on the floor reaffirming the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The House bill contains no such language, and Republicans said this language will be removed in conference.

At the end of the debate, Democrats offered a procedural motion that would have required the bill to be sent back to the House Judiciary Committee to add language allowing the procedure to be done when necessary to preserve the mother’s health. It was on the losing end of a 256-155 vote.

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