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House Backs Ban on Form of Abortion

Prohibition of what critics call the 'partial- birth' procedure is favored in the Senate. It would be the first such federal law in 30 years.

October 03, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday strongly approved legislation, which President Bush has vowed to sign, that would enact the first federal ban on an abortion procedure in 30 years.

The measure, which passed, 281 to 142, would make it a federal crime for a doctor to perform the procedure that critics call "partial-birth" abortion. The bill is expected to pass the Senate this month, and would then go to the White House for Bush's signature.

The president issued a statement calling the vote "an important step that will help us continue to build a culture of life in America."

Republicans have fought for years to ban the procedure. Similar legislation cleared Congress in the 1990s, but was twice vetoed by President Clinton.

GOP leaders said enactment of the ban would represent one of their most significant accomplishments since taking control of Congress and the White House.

But the bitter, years-long battle, although drawing to a close in Congress, is expected to move to the courts and the campaign trail.

Abortion-rights groups vowed to file a legal challenge as soon as Bush signs the measure. It would be the first federal statute criminalizing an established abortion method since 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade that under the constitutional right to privacy, women are entitled to have an abortion before the time the fetus would be able to live on its own.

Critics of the procedure call it "partial-birth" abortion because it involves partially removing an intact fetus from the womb before it is destroyed. The procedure, its critics say, is usually performed during the second trimester of pregnancy. The majority of abortions are performed during the first three months.

Under the legislation, doctors would face fines and up to two years in prison for knowingly performing the procedure, except to save a mother whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, illness or injury. The measure would allow the father or, if the mother is under age 18, the woman's parents to file a civil lawsuit seeking damages from the doctor.

There is no consensus about how many abortions would be affected by the measure, although it would likely be a fraction of the 1.3 million performed in the United States in 2000.

Still, both sides agreed that it was a historic day.

"Fortunately, we are only weeks, if not days, away from putting an end to partial-birth abortions," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.).

Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who opposed the ban, said, "For the first time in the history of the Republic, the Congress of the United States is poised to outlaw a medical procedure."

Supporters of the ban assailed the procedure -- graphically described on the House floor -- as gruesome and never medically necessary.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), an obstetrician-gynecologist, said the measure focuses "narrowly on an abhorrent technique that, in my medical opinion, represents infanticide.... I never came across an instance where this procedure was needed to protect the health or to save the life of the mother."

"Is there no limit ... is there no procedure that's so extreme ... that we are willing as a country that just goes too far?" added Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.).

Opponents argued that the ban was part of an effort to outlaw abortion altogether.

"American women, watch out!" said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose). "These congressmen are wanting ... to make the most personal decision for you, instead of you making it with your husband and your doctor."

The American Civil Liberties Union, among the groups planning a legal challenge, contends that the measure is nearly identical to a Nebraska ban on the procedure that was struck down by the Supreme Court three years ago. Opponents say the legislation fails to include an exception to protect a woman's health and would prohibit more than one abortion procedure.

"It is so clearly unconstitutional," Priscilla Smith, domestic legal director for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

Sponsors of the measure say they drafted it to pass constitutional muster, including attaching to it lengthy congressional findings asserting that a "partial-birth" abortion is "never necessary" to protect a women's health.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said he would not predict how the Supreme Court would rule. But referring to the court's 5-4 ruling in the Nebraska case, Johnson said he was hopeful that by the time a new case reaches the justices, "there will be at least a one-vote shift ... which could occur either through a justice changing his or her mind, or deciding the changes in the bill were sufficient, or through a change in personnel."

The measure is expected to be highlighted in the 2004 congressional and presidential campaigns.

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