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House Rejects District of Columbia Ban on Use of All Public Funds for Abortions

August 03, 1989|JOSH GETLIN and MICHAEL J. YBARRA | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In a dramatic and unexpected victory for pro-choice forces, the House Wednesday narrowly defeated an amendment that would ban the use of all public funds for abortions in the District of Columbia.

The 219-206 vote against an amendment by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) marked the first time the House had come down on the side of abortion rights in five years. Pro-choice leaders hailed it as an indication of growing national support for abortion rights.

The vote, which came during debate on a $532-million appropriation bill for the District of Columbia, drew strong criticism from President Bush, who said he would veto the legislation if it did not eventually contain the Dornan amendment.

Federal Funds Use Banned

Even without the Dornan amendment, the House bill would ban the use of federal funds for abortions in the District of Columbia. The Dornan amendment would have banned the use of local funds as well.

The House is expected to pass the entire bill today and send it to the Senate, where the fate of the abortion provision is unclear. Supporters of the Dornan amendment vowed to make one last attempt just before final passage to restore the sweeping abortion ban.

Wednesday's House vote on the Dornan amendment exhilarated pro-choice forces. "This is the first indication of the changing political winds in Congress and in this country in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in the Webster case," said an exuberant Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund. "We've sent a strong message to the other side that the tide is beginning to turn."

In last month's ruling in the case of Webster vs. Missouri, the Supreme Court gave the states wide latitude to regulate abortion.

A measure similar to the Dornan amendment became law last year after receiving a 222-186 favorable vote in the House. However, Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) said that the recent Supreme Court decision "turned up the heat" on the issue and made it more difficult for many members of Congress to oppose abortion rights.

"This issue is no longer the comfortable political turkey shoot that it used to be," he said. "This vote should let the other side know that it's trouble, and it's going to be more trouble for them in the future."

Minutes after the vote, Dornan conceded that the decision by some Republicans to oppose his amendment "came as a shock" to him. He agreed that "something has happened" on the Democratic side to erode the strength of pro-life forces in the House since last year's vote.

At the same time, however, he and other pro-life advocates dismissed Wednesday's action as an aberration and expressed confidence that they would prevail. They said there would be more than enough votes to sustain a Bush veto, and also suggested that many House members were "confused" by the issue and might vote differently if a similar amendment came up again.

In particular, they said, pro-life members of Congress were concerned that Dornan's amendment banned the use of public funds for abortions even if a woman's life was in danger or if she had been the victim of rape or incest. Sponsors had pledged that they would restore such exemptions when the issue came before a joint House-Senate conference committee.

Last year, Congress enacted a ban on the use of all public funds--federal and local--for abortions in the District of Columbia. In the previous four years, Congress had mandated only that federal funds not be used for district abortions.

This year, the Democratic-controlled House Appropriations Committee voted to ban only the use of federal funds. When Dornan introduced his amendment, he sparked an acrimonious 40-minute debate that revealed the bitter divisions in Congress over the abortion issue.

"I don't think there's anything worse in this country than for women to watch men in blue suits debate this issue," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.). "This issue discriminates against the women of the District of Columbia, and we owe the women of America more than that."

Dornan leaped to his feet in response, saying: "I apologize that I'm in a blue suit. Many of the abortionist doctors wear white," but their uniforms are "bloodstained."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who helped lead the floor fight against Dornan's proposal, turned to pro-life members and said angrily: "You really don't know what you're talking about. You couldn't know. We shouldn't even be discussing this issue. You don't know what it is to bear a child or not. You don't know how tormenting that decision can be."

Others charged that Dornan's amendment would jeopardize the District of Columbia's right to home rule and deprive local taxpayers of the power to make decisions about the use of their own revenues.

But Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) said that Congress controls the district's purse strings. "I have a hard time believing that you would view home rule as a more important issue than abortion," he added.

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