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Senate Drops Effort to Widen Abortion Rights

November 17, 1989|WILLIAM J. EATON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Bowing to presidential veto threats, the Senate Thursday dropped efforts to provide government-paid abortions for poor women in cases of rape or incest.

In another abortion-related decision, however, the House Thursday joined the Senate in defying the possibility of a presidential veto by voting to approve a $14.6-billion foreign aid bill that earmarks $15 million for the United Nations family planning agency.

The House's 207-200 vote was a reversal from an earlier decision that effectively blocked funding for the family planning agency. The Senate voted to approve the family planning funds Wednesday.

Opponents warned that the President would veto the measure even though the bill includes high-priority aid to Poland and Hungary as well as billions for other nations, including Israel, Egypt, Pakistan and the Philippines.

"This bill is absolutely unacceptable," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), who, along with Bush, charged that the U.N. agency has promoted a program of coerced abortions in China. To meet this objection, the House added an amendment to provide that the $15 million would be returned if any of it were used in China or for abortions anywhere.

In the measure involving government-paid abortions in the United States in rape and incest cases, the Senate approved by voice vote a $157-billion appropriations bill for major health, welfare and education programs without the language on expanded abortion rights. Bush had rejected the bill the first time around because it called for expanded abortion rights.

Conforming to the President's wishes, the legislation--which has now passed both chambers of Congress--provides Medicaid funding of abortions for low-income women only if the life of the mother is endangered by the pregnancy.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), manager of the money bill in the Senate, said swift passage of the measure was needed to prevent spending cutbacks in such popular programs as Head Start, student loans, Meals on Wheels and health care for the elderly.

If Bush were to veto the bill after Congress has adjourned for the year, spending on these programs would revert to lower levels provided in the previous fiscal year, Harkin indicated.

"But we'll be back next year," Harkin said, referring to the rape-incest provision he authored in the first version of the bill that was unexpectedly accepted by the House in a 216-206 roll call Oct. 11.

Abortion rights advocates in the House agreed with the Senate's decision to avoid another confrontation over the issue at this time. They said they lacked the votes to override a second Bush veto on the rape-incest provision.

Congressional sources said anti-abortion forces in the House were prepared to allow Medicaid-paid abortions for rape and incest victims if they reported the crimes to police within 48 hours. Pro-choice lawmakers said the notice period was too short because victims of rape and incest often were extremely reluctant to talk about the offenses to anyone for days, if not weeks or months, afterward.

The issue has become highly political since the Supreme Court decision in July authorized states to do more to limit abortions.

Many moderate Republicans--especially those seeking statewide office--have appealed to the President to soften his stand against abortion payments for poor women in rape and incest cases, but so far he has stood fast.

Taking a sharply different stance than the President, for example, Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), a candidate for governor next year, announced that he would sponsor a "freedom of choice" bill to guarantee a woman's right to have an abortion.

"The decision to terminate a pregnancy is so intensely personal that no one but the woman can be permitted to make it," Wilson said in a statement. "Government does nothing wise or good if it enacts laws that force this decision underground and compel otherwise law-abiding citizens to resort to illegal and dangerous back-alley medical treatment or self-performed abortions."

The California Constitution, Wilson noted, includes a guarantee of abortion rights, but federal law is necessary to protect women in other states where there is no such constitutional guarantee.

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