Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON—The latest congressional failure to ban the partial-birth abortion procedure has been a frustrating blow to pro-life forces. But they are also hopeful that the issue can be used to elect more sympathetic legislators in the critical November midterm elections.
On Sept. 18 the Senate fell three votes short of overriding President Clinton's veto of HR 1122, which passed both houses of Congress in 1997. The House successfully overrode the veto on July 23, but the Senate could not reach the necessary 67 votes, two-thirds of that chamber's membership.
Bills prohibiting partial-birth abortion and providing criminal and civil penalties for practitioners were passed in the last two sessions of Congress; enactment has been thwarted by the president. A previous veto override vote in the Senate failed by nine votes.
Over the last several months vigorous campaigns to change Senate votes were undertaken by the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council, and other religious and secular organizations. Steve Forbes, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2000, ran full-page newspaper ads the day of the vote.
Among groups appealing directly to senators was the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In the Sept. 16 statement signed by 54 bishops, they said, “We pray that this long and difficult chapter in our country's abortion debate be brought to the only appropriate conclusion: the rejection of a truly heinous violation of human rights and dignity.”
The Senate floor debate was lead by two ardent pro-life supporters, Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Robert Smith (R-N.H.). Santorum, who also shaped the discussion during the last override vote, presented charts and data in an effort to debunk six myths about partial-birth abortion. The most enduring myth is that the procedure protects women's health.
The senator reiterated the themes he raised in a recent editorial he wrote for the Register (“The Truth About Partial-Birth Abortion,” Sept. 13-19). “The attempt to preserve partial-birth abortion as a legal procedure,” he wrote, “has been rooted in falsehood — not unlike the abortion industry itself.”
Smith, a likely presidential candidate in 2000, gave a long, emotional speech. At one point he said, “This is America, supposedly the moral leader of the world. What does it say to our children when we kill children, their colleagues, with a pair of scissors and a suction hose as they exit the birth canal? What does that tell them?”
Other senators argued that a society's position on abortion and, in particular, partial-birth abortion reflects its values. “No issue cuts to the core of our values like the issue of abortion,” said Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), another prospective presidential aspirant.
He added, “It challenges us to define our notion of liberty and calls into question our most fundamental assumptions about life. Today, we do not debate whether enactment of a measure will positively or negatively affect the welfare of some Americans. Today, we debate life and death.”
Calling it “something that no civilized society should tolerate,” Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) said the partial-birth vote “is about who we are as a people.”
Retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said, “What we are confronting is an affront to humanity, an affront to justice.”
But in the end, after a day and half of debate and months of pressure and cajoling, no votes were changed from the last tally which was taken in May 1997. Four Republicans joined with 32 Democrats to sustain the presidential veto.
Condemnation of the outcome was swift. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said that it is a “tragedy that even today some senators continued to repeat tired falsehoods on the floor of the Senate in support of this horrid procedure.”
Father Frank Pavone, international director of the Priests for Life, stressed that Catholic senators who supported partial-birth abortions — there were 10 of them — are at variance with Church teachings. In addition to citing the U.S. Bishops' 1989 Resolution on Abortion, he said, “We are also ready pastorally to assist such individuals to overcome their difficulty in embracing Church teaching. “
A disappointed Santorum said, “It is truly regrettable that the Senate could not muster the political and moral courage to override. One president and three senators have kept us from being a civilized country that respects and welcomes everyone into the human family.”
The president of the Washington, D.C-based Culture of Life Foundation, Robert Best, focused on Clinton's role in supporting partial-birth abortion. “It is incomprehensible that President Clinton, who's desperately searching for forgiveness and apparently wishes to atone for his sins maintains a position that gives legal cover to the most gruesome practice in the history of mankind, infanticide,” Best told the Register. “It's hard to understand how a man who has reached such a low level in his life would not want to amend his mistakes by giving innocent children an opportunity to live.”
Keith Fournier, president of the Catholic Alliance, added, “As Catholic citizens, in particular, we can't help but notice the connection between this vote and the current moral crisis facing the nation. In both cases, we have lost our respect for the dignity of the human person.”
Despite the disappointment, pro-life supporters remain optimistic about the future. Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a prominent pollster, told the Register, “Partial-birth abortion is one of the five or six issues beyond Bill Clinton's wingspan. This will be one of the wedge issues” in the 1998 congressional elections.
The upcoming elections, she added, will give pro-lifers an opportunity to “replace errant members of the House and Senate with folks who will vote the right way in the next Congress.”
This theme was repeated in other interviews. Smith said, “It's a temporary setback. We would have saved some lives. But we're going to involuntarily retire some senators, and that's fine with me. Things are going to change in February.”
Another presidential candidate, Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, said, “There is not another issue more important. This goes to the heart of whether or not the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution applies to our unborn children.”
As such, he said, political repercussions will be felt in six weeks. “Three senators won't be back,” he said, citing tough re-election races for Democratic incumbents in Illinois (Carol Moseley-Braun) and California (Barbara Boxer); Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas is retiring. Five other Democrats who supported the president on the partial-birth abortion issue are running for re-election.
In addition to the political dimension of the issue, some have emphasized the educational value of the partial-birth abortion debate. “This has the potential for turning people around on the whole abortion issue,” said Darla St. Martin of the National Right to Life Committee.
The director of the House of Representatives' Pro-Life Caucus, Maggie Wynne, added, “Partial-birth has done more to jolt public opinion than anything else. It has had the most dramatic impact in 20 years. It exceeds that of (the landmark anti-abortion film) The Silent Scream.”
Although the Senate override effort failed, pro-life leaders remain optimistic about the future. The 106th Congress, which assembles in January, is likely to include more, perhaps even substantial, support for a partial-birth abortion ban.
Perhaps Alan Keyes, the political commentator and 1996 presidential candidate, framed the issue best in an interview with the Register. He said, “Keep fighting. Keep pushing this issue. Today we lost the vote, but we are doing battle for the soul of the country.”
Joseph Esposito writes from Washington.