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U.S. News
Senate passes 'partial birth' abortion ban

Friday, March 14, 2003

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- "This is a good morning," Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., exulted yesterday, moments after his bill to ban what he calls "partial-birth abortion" sailed through the Senate on a bipartisan 64-33 vote.

The bill goes next to the Republican-controlled House, where it's expected to pass before the end of April, and then to the White House for President Bush's signature. Bush hailed yesterday's vote as an important step toward "building a culture of life in America."

Santorum, an ardent foe of abortion, said he was not convinced that the ban will prevent a significant number of abortions, but said he believed the public awareness raised by the debate over the last few years "has stopped many." He added that if the bill did stop a number of abortions it would be the most important job he has done in Congress.

Opponents of the ban insist that only about 500 of the procedures, similar to what physicians call "intact dilation and extraction," are done each year and are medically necessary; proponents of the ban set the figure between 3,000 and 5,000 and are never necessary. There are about 1 million abortions performed in the United States annually.

The bill would bar doctors from committing an "overt act" to kill a partially delivered fetus whose head is outside the mother's body, or, in the case of a breech delivery, the fetus' trunk beyond the navel is outside her body. The bill defines the procedure as one in which the physician "punctures the back of the child's skull with a sharp instrument and sucks the child's brains out before completing delivery of the dead infant."

The legislation would allow such an abortion only to save a woman's life, not to protect her health, one of the reasons the procedure is sometimes performed. Physicians who illegally perform the procedure would be subject to a fine and imprisonment for up to two years.

Santorum insisted that language allowing the procedure to be done to protect the mother's life would not mute the ban's significance.

For eight years, critics of the partial-birth abortion procedure have fought to ban it. Congress twice passed such a ban, but it was vetoed by President Bill Clinton as improper interference in the practice of medicine and unconstitutionally tying doctors' hands if the health of the mother was at stake. In both instances, ban proponents were unable to muster enough votes to override his veto.

The Supreme Court in 2000 overturned a Nebraska law outlawing the procedure, declaring the law's wording to be too vague and restrictive. A majority of states have similar bans, but their legal status is in doubt.

Now that the Senate is controlled by Republicans, 51-48 (with one independent), Santorum, the chamber's No. 3 GOP leader as chair of the Republican conference, said he had found it much easier to outlaw what he described as "this evil, heinous procedure that is outside the bounds of medicine."

"Even supporters of Roe v. Wade agreed with me it is not a legitimate medical procedure," he said.

Sixteen Democrats, including Senate Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, joined 48 Republicans in support of the bill, and 29 Democrats, three Republicans and one independent opposed it.

The three Republicans who voted against the ban were Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Maine's two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords was an independent joining with them.

Santorum said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., had told him that he would have voted in favor of the ban, had he been present. Two Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts, also were not present and thus cast no vote.

Among regional senators, Santorum found support from fellow Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Mike DeWine and George Voinovich of Ohio, as well as Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., opposed the ban.

Santorum said the current bill has been refined to be more specific than previous versions and said he was confident that the Supreme Court would uphold the ban.

But Santorum's opponents maintained that they were equally convinced that the law could be declared unconstitutional.

Abortion-rights advocates, such as the NARAL Pro-Choice America group, decried yesterday's Senate vote as unfairly "criminalizing a safe, legal abortion procedure." They said, however, that they were glad that the Senate had also endorsed a resolution declaring that the Roe v. Wade decision was "appropriate and secures an important constitutional right."

Abortion-rights advocates intended that non-binding, 52-46 vote as a way to put the Senate on record against efforts to overturn the 1973 court ruling. Still, the resolution's sponsor, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, noted, "The bad news is that 46 United States senators voted to overturn Roe v. Wade."

The Senate floor debate this week was impassioned and at times grisly, as critics described the procedure utilizing drawings. They said no civilized society should tolerate such a procedure.

Foes of the ban said they resented such tactics. They invoked stories of women who said the procedure was the only way to safely abort a deformed fetus and give some women the option to have more children. Moreover, they said, they feared that the ban would be extended to other abortion procedures.

Kate Michelman, president of the NARAL advocacy group, said: "The passage of this legislation demonstrates how devastating the elections of 2002 were in giving control of the Senate to anti-choice leadership. Now, women have no firewall between them and those who want to take away the right to choose."

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, who will champion the measure in the House, said he hoped that passage of the partial-birth abortion ban would lead to outlawing all abortions.

Chabot predicted that the House would pass a bill identical to the Senate version, but would not agree to the resolution endorsing Roe v. Wade. That outcome will lead to a House-Senate conference to resolve the differences before the measure goes to Bush.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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