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House Overrides Clinton's Veto of Abortion Measure

Congress: Lawmakers reject, 285-137, arguments against a ban on late-term procedure. But efforts to gain two-thirds support in the Senate appear tougher.

September 20, 1996|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Abortion foes in the House voted Thursday to override President Clinton's veto of a bill that would outlaw a late-term abortion procedure denounced by its critics as infanticide.

The measure is unlikely to become law, however, because the effort to override must also succeed in the Senate, where mustering the two-thirds majority that would be needed appears far more difficult. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said the upper chamber will vote on the issue as early as next Thursday but acknowledged that "it would be hard to override it."

In the House, the 285-137 vote came as lawmakers rejected arguments that the ban would deny women who are experiencing crisis pregnancies access to a procedure that could protect their health and future fertility. Opponents said the procedure is grotesque and brings a painful end to a life.

In spite of the bill's dim prospects, the vote in the House could achieve two significant goals for abortion foes: revitalize debate about the emotional abortion issue at a pivotal moment in political campaigns across the country and at the presidential level, and shift the political debate about abortion away from focusing on individuals' rights and toward the often-grim details of the procedures involved in terminating pregnancies.

As a result, abortion foes believe that the debate over the late-term abortion procedure that would be banned by the act will help nudge many Americans who favor legalized abortion to reconsider their positions.

"This was the most historic vote in the House since Roe vs. Wade," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.). "For the first time, attention has been focused on the child."

The victory for antiabortion forces came after several House members with long records of supporting abortion rights defected and voted against the White House. It also followed a nationwide grass-roots campaign that has brought lawmakers under intense political pressure.

Among the 52-member California delegation, the vote largely followed party lines. Most Republicans voted to override the president's veto, and most Democrats voted to sustain it.

Exceptions were Republicans Tom Campbell of San Jose and Steve Horn of Long Beach, who voted to sustain the veto, and Democrats Gary A. Condit of Ceres and Matthew G. Martinez of Monterey Park, who voted to override it.

Both the House and Senate passed the measure, termed the "partial-birth abortion" ban, in March 1996, and Clinton vetoed it in April.

Opponents of the override effort charged that abortion foes have deliberately delayed the vote to hand many Republican candidates an advantage at the polls this November.

Abortion-rights activists denounced the vote and downplayed its importance.

"I think the debate in Congress has shifted, but the debate among the American public has not," said Jo Blum, chief lobbyist for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "It is very clear the American public does not want the federal government intruding into decisions made between physicians and their patients."

Both sides in Thursday's debate brought powerful visual aids to the House floor to make their case. Again and again, antiabortion lawmakers showed line drawings of the procedure known to those who perform it as "intact dilation and extraction."

Produced by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has lobbied heavily against the procedure, the line drawing depicts a fetus beyond the 20th week of development being delivered, feet first, through the birth canal. With all of the fetus' body but the head delivered, the doctor pierces the skull and sucks the contents out, collapsing the head before removing the developing baby.

"People who say, 'I feel your pain' aren't referring to that little person," Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said in a pointed reference to Clinton. "Can't we draw the line at baby torture? There's no argument here about when life begins. The child here is unmistakably alive, unmistakably moving."

But lawmakers seeking to sustain Clinton's veto had visual aids of their own. They repeatedly showed photographs and talked about women who have undergone the procedure to end a pregnancy that went tragically awry late in development. The women had been warned that carrying their pregnancies to term would threaten their ability to have more children. Following the procedure, however, the women went on to have other healthy children.

Lawmakers arguing against the abortion ban repeated their assertions that the "partial-birth" procedure is rarely performed and represents no more than perhaps 1,000 of the 1.5 million abortions done annually in the United States. They contended that it is carried out largely on women whose pregnancies threaten their health or future fertility or who had wanted children but discovered the babies they carried could not survive outside the womb.

"This is a political issue for this Congress, but it's a real-life issue for the families that need it," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose). "They do not need the Congress of the United States to be involved" with their personal and medical choices, Lofgren added.

But opponents maintain thatthe procedure is far more common. Citing the writings of doctors who perform the procedures, they also charge that in perhaps the majority of cases, "partial-birth" abortion is performed on women whose fetuses are perfectly healthy or only slightly deformed. Opponents also contend that the aborted fetus is alive until the moment its skull is collapsed and can feel pain.

"I can't believe the Orwellian language on the floor today--that people actually defend this procedure," said Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.). "This is about a procedure where an abortionist delivers all but the head of a child. . . ."

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