Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Inches Closer to Being Law

WASHINGTON — It has been eight years, but it appears a bill to ban partial-birth abortions is close to becoming law.

The House on Oct. 2 voted 281-142 to ban partial-birth abortions. The action came just two days after a conference committee of House and Senate negotiators agreed on final language for the bill.

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., wanted several days of debate on the bill, which pushed a Senate vote past the Columbus Day recess.

That delay is just one more for a ban that has been anything but fast-track legislation.

“President Clinton and a minority of senators, mostly Democrats, blocked enactment of the partial-birth abortion ban for eight years, and now it appears that Democratic senators will obstruct the bill for additional weeks,” said Doug Johnson, legislative director for National Right to Life.

Boxer and other Senate Democrats had already delayed the bill for three months by refusing a customary procedural vote to send the bill to a conference committee to negotiate differences between it and a House bill.

Boxer had demanded that language supporting the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision remain in the final bill. But House Republicans refused to pass such a measure.

The senator told reporters: “I worry with this language out … what we're saying to American women is, 'Your health doesn't matter.'”

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who sponsored the ban, remained confident that Boxer's delay tactics were near their end.

“We're going to get the bill passed, and we're going to get it signed,” he said.

Gail Quinn, a spokeswoman for the pro-life secretariat at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged the Senate to take up the bill quickly.

“I applaud the House for its action,” she said. “I encourage the Senate to take up the conference report as soon as possible and send it to the president, who is waiting to sign it.”

In the abortion procedure that would be banned by the bill, a baby is partially delivered before the abortionist pierces his head, extracts the brain and collapses the skull, allowing for full delivery of the now-dead baby.

‘Important Step’

President Bush has made continued promises to sign the ban, and his spokesman reiterated that support after the House vote.

“This will be an important step toward building a culture of life in America,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. He urged the Senate “to move quickly on this important piece of legislation.”

President Clinton vetoed similar bans in 1996 and 1997.

A ban on partial-birth abortion has enjoyed wide popular support. A January Gallup poll found that 70% of Americans supported “a law that would make it illegal to perform a specific abortion procedure conducted in the last six months of pregnancy known as a 'partial-birth abortion,' except in cases necessary to save the life of the mother.” One in four Americans opposed such a ban.

Having lost support in the executive and legislative branch, abortion activists have announced they will head to the courts.

“We will challenge this unconstitutional ban the second it's signed into law by President Bush,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based public interest law firm that represents Nebraska abortionist Dr. LeRoy Carhart.

“As the U.S. Supreme Court has already affirmed, bans like these threaten women's health; we will do everything in our power to prevent this harmful legislation from taking effect,” she said.

She referred to Stenberg v. Carhart, a case in 2000 in which the nation's high court overturned Nebraska's partial-birth abortion law by a 5-4 vote.

The bill's opponents say it is unconstitutional because the language is so broad as to ban more than one type of abortion and because the bill does not include an exception allowing the procedure in cases where it is necessary for the mother's health.

“We will have to practice medicine with the fear of prosecution after every patient,” Carhart told The New York Times.

Johnson of National Right to Life hopes that if the Supreme Court hears a challenge to the new law, there will be five votes in favor of its constitutionality.

“Two-thirds of Congress, 70% of the public and four Supreme Court justices say there is no constitutional right to deliver most of a living baby and then puncture her head with scissors,” Johnson said. “But five Supreme Court justices have said that the right of abortionists to perform partial-birth abortions is guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. We hope that by the time this ban reaches the Supreme Court, at least five justices will be willing to reject such extremism.”

He said the balance could be shifted in one of three ways: One of the justices could decide he was wrong in voting against the ban's constitutionality; one of the justices could decide the language in the new bill is more clearly defined than in the Nebraska law; or there could be a retirement from the bench who would be replaced by a pro-life judge.

House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the ban itself is medically prudent.

“Contrary to the claims of partial-birth abortion advocates, this savage procedure remains an untested, unproven and potentially dangerous procedure that has never been embraced by the medical profession,” Sensenbrenner said.

He said the language of the bill has been narrowed to define more clearly the prohibited type of abortion.

An abortionist who violates this ban would be subject to fines, a maximum of two years' imprisonment or both. The ban includes an exception for situations in which a partial-birth abortion is deemed necessary to save the life of the mother.

Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.