Partial-birth abortion ban passes; awaits president's signature

WASHINGTON (BP)--The U.S. Senate approved a ban on partial-birth abortion Oct. 21, sending such a prohibition for the first time to a president who supports the measure.

Senators voted 64-34 for the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act, completing congressional action on a bill that has twice before gone to the White House but been vetoed, both times by former President Clinton. Senate passage came after the House of Representatives gave final approval to the bill Oct. 2 in a 281-142 vote.

President Bush has promised to sign the bill into law.

"It is long past the time that our elected representatives banned this heinous partial-birth abortion procedure, which so repulses and horrifies a significant majority of the American people," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "Any society that allows such a barbarous procedure to continue has lost the right to call itself civilized."

Bush's signature will outlaw a procedure that has been a focus of much of the abortion debate during the last decade. The method, named "dilation and extraction" by a doctor who helped develop the procedure, normally consists of the delivery of an intact baby feet first until only the head is left in the birth canal. The doctor pierces the base of the infant's skull with surgical scissors, then inserts a catheter into the opening and suctions out the brain. The collapse of the skull provides for easier removal of the baby's head. This typically occurs during the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy.

When it becomes law, the ban will mark the first time Congress has restricted a particular method since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

It is likely the U.S. Supreme Court will determine the fate of the law. Abortion-rights organizations, including the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, have promised to go to court to seek to block enforcement of the ban. The high court already has struck down a state ban that has some differences with the latest federal version.

Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, said in a written release, "Given an activist judiciary, the prospects for the ban surviving a court challenge are dim unless [Attorney General John Ashcroft] is ready to pour resources and energy into the fight to defend it. [FRC] is confident that [Ashcroft] and his staff are ready to meet this challenge."

Abortion-rights leader Kate Michelman criticized the vote. "No one should be fooled as to the real intentions of this bill's sponsors; they want to take away entirely the right to personal privacy and a woman's right to choose," Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-choice America, said in a written statement.

Both houses of Congress passed the ban earlier in the year, but the Senate included an amendment the House was unwilling to accept. The non-binding, Senate resolution endorsed the Roe decision. A conference committee of members of both houses removed the amendment Sept. 30 before reporting the bill out for final approval.

Congress twice adopted partial-birth abortion bans in the 1990s only to have Clinton veto them both times. In both 1996 and 1998, the House achieved the two-thirds majorities necessary to override vetoes, but the Senate fell short.

In 2000, the Supreme Court overturned a Nebraska law patterned after the federal ban approved by Congress but vetoed by Clinton. The justices voted 5-4 to strike down the law in its Stenberg v. Carhart opinion. The Nebraska measure was one of 27 state laws patterned after the federal legislation.

The justices' ruling prompted congressional supporters of a ban to draft a new version that sought to remedy the high court's ruling the Nebraska law could have been interpreted to cover other abortion methods. They also sought to address the justices' declaration the ban needed an exception for maternal health reasons. The latest bill provides more specific language on the procedure it seeks to prohibit. It also declares in its findings the method is neither safe for women nor necessary to preserve their health. It includes an exception to protect the mother's life.

In the Oct. 21 Senate debate, Sen. Rick Santorum, R.-Pa., chief sponsor, said the bill was "constitutionally sound and very, very necessary" for American society.

"We need to do this for ourselves," he said. "We can't allow this kind of brutality to corrupt us, corrupt our souls. And that's what it does. It makes us a much more brutal society."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D.-Calif., leading foe of the bill, said the ban was "clearly unconstitutional."

She called it a "very sad day for the women of America, a very sad day for the families of America. We are about to pass a piece of legislation that bans a medical procedure that makes no exception for the health of a mother."

Santorum pointed out some abortion-rights leaders have acknowledged most partial-birth abortions involve healthy babies and healthy mothers. He also argued a health exception would render the measure meaningless. In conjunction with its Roe opinion, the Supreme Court ruled at the same time in Doe v. Bolton a health exception for a pregnant woman could include such factors as age and emotional, psychological or emotional states. The combination of the two rulings has resulted in legalized abortion throughout all stages of pregnancy for unlimited reasons.

During debate, Sen. Frank Lautenburg, D.-N.J., called Senate supporters of the ban a "boys club." He cited artwork and photos Republicans had displayed on the Senate floor. Santorum used color drawings of the procedure, and Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., showed a now famous photo of Samuel Armas, as a preborn child, grasping a doctor's finger during surgery.

Lautenberg asked if the senators wanted to "watch someone have their intestine removed or something of that nature. Sure they're ugly, but they're for a positive purpose." He explained his father "was 42 when he was stricken with colon cancer, and he had his intestine removed to try and save his life. And it was an ugly, painful procedure, and I equate this with any painful procedure that is surgically necessary."

Lautenberg and he "have a fundamental difference on how we view this issue," Santorum said in response.

Pointing to the photo of Armas grabbing the surgeon's hand, Santorum said, "That little child is not a threat to this mother. It is not a cancerous lesion. It is not a defective or deformed part of that person's body that is threatening their health. It happens to be a human being inside of the mother. ... What are we saying to people when we liken little children to cancerous parts of someone's body? We just see these little children as what, threats, as something to be excised because they're not wanted? Is that the way we look at children? Is that the way we view them, as cancerous lesions?

"And then we wonder why we have so much child abuse in this country; we wonder why one-third of pregnancies end in abortion; we wonder why our culture is degraded," Santorum said. "[It's] because we compare them to cancerous intestines on the floor of the United States Senate."

The Southern Baptist Convention approved resolutions condemning the procedure in both 1996 and 2002. Last year, messengers easily passed a proposal from the floor calling for Bush to make enactment of a ban on the method a high priority.


Michael Foust contributed to this article.

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