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Senate OKs Curb on Interstate Abortions for Minors

The Republican-backed bill criminalizes travel to evade parental consent. Rights advocates say it's fuel for rallying supporters.

July 26, 2006|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Acting to further chip away at abortion rights ahead of the fall congressional elections, Senate Republicans on Tuesday pushed through legislation making it a federal crime to evade parental consent laws by taking minors across state lines for abortions.

The 65-34 Senate vote -- which came just a week after a controversial bill on stem cell research divided several leading Republicans from their anti-abortion base -- gave the party another plank for its "values" agenda.

Building on parental consent requirements in many states, the vote marked another victory in the drive by abortion opponents to limit access to the procedure with small measures that stop short of an all-out ban.

"Americans have been saying, 'Can't we at least find some reasonable middle ground? Can't we find some ground to at least make some reasonable restrictions on abortion?' " said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who sponsored the bill. "This is a reasonable piece of legislation."

The bill must still be reconciled with a slightly different House measure passed last year. Republicans in both chambers said Tuesday that they were confident that would be done before Congress recesses for the fall elections.

President Bush said in a statement that he would sign the legislation.

There are no figures on the number of minors who cross state lines in an effort to avoid telling their parents that they are getting abortions. But while that number is probably not large, parental notification has long been controversial.

About 35 states have laws requiring that minors either notify or get permission from their parents before getting abortions. Californians narrowly rejected such a law last year, but Proposition 85 will put the issue before voters again this fall.

Abortion rights activists and their mostly Democratic allies on Capitol Hill have fought for nearly a decade to head off the restriction on out-of-state travel, which in most cases would also allow parents to sue anyone who helps their child get an abortion in another state without their consent.

"We've brought up a bill that does absolutely nothing to protect girls," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who led the opposition.

In the end, 14 Democrats joined 51 Republicans in voting for the bill. Four Republicans opposed it. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was absent.

The Senate vote capped a lengthy campaign to crack down on what abortion opponents charged was a nefarious practice of evading state parental consent requirements.

The House first passed a bill addressing the issue in 1998, but Senate Democrats stopped it. Since then, Republicans have pushed a series of other restrictions and requirements on those seeking abortions.

Congress in 2003 criminalized a late-term abortion procedure that opponents call "partial birth" abortion. In 2004, lawmakers gave legal status to fetuses, making it a separate offense to harm a fetus in violent crimes tried before federal courts.

In 2005, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a prominent social conservative, introduced a measure to require doctors to inform women seeking an abortion that the fetus may feel pain. That bill is still under consideration.

And last year, the House passed its bill by a 113-vote margin to restrict minors from crossing state lines to get an abortion.

Republicans, who are under pressure to hold on to their Senate and House majorities in November's elections, are being accused by Democrats of using the abortion bill as a means of playing to the GOP's conservative base.

But those championing the new abortion restrictions on minors said they had a much broader segment of the public on their side.

"When there is an issue with 80% support on one side, most politicians would be well-advised to be on the 80% side," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, a leading advocate of the Senate bill.

Even as the Senate passed the measure, however, advocates for abortion rights struck a defiant position, promising to use the bill to rally their own supporters in November.

In California, Mary-Jane Wagle, who heads Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, said her organization was already working on strategies to incorporate the congressional vote into its campaign against Proposition 85.

"I think this is the kind of drastic law that will help us make the case," Wagle said.

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