Tuesday, September 30, 2003

A ban on partial-birth abortions could be on President Bush’s desk by as early as next week, after a conference committee yesterday finished with the bill and sent it to be cleared by both chambers.

President Clinton twice vetoed a similar ban — in April 1996 and October 1997.

“After two presidential vetoes, this ban will finally become law and the performance of this barbaric procedure will come to an end,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and member of the House-Senate conference committee.

The House is expected to clear the legislation this week and the Senate could do the same, though the bill’s supporters say Democratic senators could delay the inevitable by demanding hours of floor debate before a final vote.

The conference committee approved the bill yesterday in two party-line votes. House conferees voted 3-2 for the measure. Senate conferees also voted 3-2 to approve it. All Republicans supported the bill; all Democrats opposed it.

Most notably, the bill approved by the conference left out language inserted into the Senate version that would have expressed support for Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws against abortion.

Republicans defeated an attempt by Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat and conference panel member, to add back that language, which was sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat.

“I worry with this language out … what we’re saying to American women is ‘your health doesn’t matter,’” said Mrs. Boxer, who thinks the bill is unconstitutional.

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 partially delivered before its skull is pierced and its brain extracted.

Pro-choice groups plan to challenge the legislation in court immediately after the president signs it. They, along with some Democrats, say it is as unconstitutional as a Nebraska ban the Supreme Court struck down in 2000 because the procedure is too broadly defined and would not allow a partial-birth abortion to protect the mother’s health.

“I wonder why we are bothering passing a bill that is so clearly unconstitutional,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and conference member, said yesterday.

Ban supporters said those issues are addressed in the current legislation, in part by providing a more precise definition of the procedure.

The legislation does not include a “health exception,” but instead includes a lengthy “findings” section, stating that medical evidence presented in congressional hearings showed partial-birth abortion poses serious risks to women’s health, is never medically needed and is outside the standards of medical care.

Democrats on the conference panel tried twice yesterday to create a “health exception” to the ban, but Republicans defeated them in two sets of party-line votes.

Rep. Steve Chabot, Ohio Republican and conference member, said abortionists have stated publicly that any pregnancy is a threat to a woman’s health. He said that if the bill were to contain a health exception it would amount to a “phony ban,” and doctors would be able to continue performing partial-birth abortions unfettered.

In March, a bipartisan group of 17 senators voted in favor of both Mr. Harkin’s Roe v. Wade language and the Senate bill, which passed the Senate 64-33. The question is whether some of those senators will switch and oppose the final bill now that the Harkin language is not included.

Supporters of the ban doubt that will happen.

“I don’t know anyone who supported the bill because of the Harkin language, so I don’t anticipate any diminution of the vote,” said bill sponsor Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican.

Even opponents, including Mrs. Boxer, have said they expect the legislation to clear both chambers and go to the president.

The only thing Democratic opponents could do is delay a final vote in the Senate until after the upcoming weeklong break by demanding several hours of debate on the bill, said one pro-life lobbyist.

Mr. Santorum said he expects Mrs. Boxer to demand a lengthy floor debate. He predicted the Senate will wait until after the upcoming break to take up the bill.

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