The Senate yesterday passed a bill banning partial-birth abortion and sent it to President Bush, who pledged last night to sign the legislation after two vetoes of similar bans by President Clinton.
“We have a president who has said he is willing to sign this legislation,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and the bill’s sponsor. “So this is a very, very important day for our country and for those babies who would be the object of this brutal procedure.”
Pro-choice groups plan to challenge the ban in court once the bill is signed.
The Senate cleared the final version of the bill yesterday by a 64-34 vote, with 17 Democrats voting for it and three Republicans voting against it.
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina missed the vote. The two other Democratic senators seeking the White House, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, voted no.
“This is a very sad day for the women of America,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat and the leading opponent of the bill.
Mrs. Boxer said the legislation for “the first time in history bans a medical procedure without making any exception for the health of the woman. This is a radical, radical thing.”
The House cleared the bill earlier this month.
Mr. Bush called the proposal “very important legislation that will end an abhorrent practice and continue to build a culture of life in America.”
“I look forward to signing it into law,” he said in a statement.
“We have done this before; this time it’s different,” said Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican. “This time we have a president who will sign it.”
Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, said, “This will go down in history as a turning-point day, where we start to recognize that the child in the womb is a child.”
The federal law will be the first to ban an abortion procedure since Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that struck down all state laws against abortion and made abortion a constitutional right.
The new restriction will be challenged immediately in court by pro-choice groups, including the National Abortion Federation (NAF) and the Center for Reproductive Rights, who say they will win because the Supreme Court already has struck down a Nebraska ban on partial-birth abortion as vague and a threat to women’s health.
“It will be a short-lived victory” for Republicans, said Vicki Saporta, president of NAF. “This bill will not become law.”
Miss Saporta said, “A federal ban on safe medical procedures endangers women’s health. Medical decisions must be made by medical professionals — not politicians.”
The legislation would ban partial-birth abortions, except when necessary to save the life of the mother. In a partial-birth abortion — also known as dilation and extraction — the baby is delivered partially before its skull is pierced and its brain extracted. A January Gallup poll found 70 percent of Americans favored a federal ban of the procedure.
Opponents say the legislation is the first step toward banning all abortion.
Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, said, “I see where this is going: A couple of votes here or there in the next election, you can kiss Roe v. Wade goodbye.”
Miss Saporta said the bill “suffers the same two flaws” as the Nebraska law that the justices rejected as unconstitutional in 2000. She speculated that Republicans are hoping to change the composition of the Supreme Court in time for the case to reach that level.
Supporters of the legislation say it adequately addresses the court’s concerns.
The bill has a more precise definition of the procedure, in order to address the Supreme Court’s concern that the Nebraska law was vague and could have been interpreted to ban another commonly performed type of abortion.
“This bill is constitutionally sound and obviously very, very necessary,” Mr. Santorum said.
The American Center for Law and Justice said last night that it will help defend the ban in court. Jay Sekulow, ACLJ chief counsel, said the legislation is “well-crafted and legally sound, and we’re confident that it will survive a constitutional challenge.”
The Supreme Court also found the Nebraska ban unconstitutional because it failed to make exceptions in cases where the procedure was deemed necessary to preserve the health of the mother.
The federal legislation doesn’t include such a health exception, but instead includes a lengthy “findings” section concluding, based on the extensive congressional hearing record on the topic, 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 medical care.
Mrs. Boxer cited doctors who said the procedure was medically necessary in some cases. Without the health exception, she said, “it fails the Supreme Court test.”
Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican and sponsor of the House bill, has said abortionists have stated publicly that any pregnancy is a threat to a woman’s health.
He explained that a health exception would merely allow doctors to continue performing partial-birth abortions unfettered.
Pro-life advocates also saw the legal battle differently.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said, “This litigation will pose the question: Does the Constitution really guarantee a right to deliver a premature infant to within inches of complete birth, and then kill her?”