ABORTION: Sen. Passes ‘Partial-Birth’ Ban But Affirms Roe
The Senate yesterday voted 63-34 to ban "partial-birth" abortion for the third time in four years, but once again "fell narrowly short" of the two-thirds majority needed to override President Clinton's promised veto, the Washington Post reports. The "Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 1999" prohibits all "intact dilation and extraction" procedures, except in cases where it is medically necessary to save a woman's life. Under the bill, physicians performing the procedure would be subject to felony charges punishable by a fine and up to two years in prison; the woman would not be prosecuted (Dewar, Washington Post, 10/22). In addition, the bill would allow the father of the fetus and sometimes the woman's parents to sue the abortion provider. Calling the procedure "infanticide," Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), the measure's chief sponsor, said, "This is a baby who is all but born and then killed" (AP/Tulsa World, 10/21). He added, "What we are saying is that, even if it is legal under certain circumstances ... this partial-birth procedure takes us down a very slippery slope" (Hess, Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/22). Santorum added that the bill "makes it clear we're not talking about any other form of abortion. It will get rid of the issue of vagueness" (Rovner, CongressDaily/A.M., , 10/22). During the heated and often emotional floor debate, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL) said, "If people were sticking scissors on the heads of puppies we would not abide it. In the name of common decency, I implore my colleagues not to let this happen to the young any longer." Opponents contended that the law's language was too broad and would outlaw all abortions. By not including an exception to preserve a woman's health, they argued, the bill would "tie the hands of professionals in dealing with life- and health-threatening pregnancies." Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said, "Here we are in the Senate ... not one of us an obstetrician, not one of us a gynecologist, deciding what procedures should or should not be used, and under what circumstances, in a matter that should be left to the medical profession, left to the families of this country, left to the loving moms and dads" (Mitchell, New York Times, 10/22).
Affirming Constitutionality of Abortion
The Senate also held its first ever "Sense of the Senate" vote Thursday on Roe v. Wade. Proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the nonbinding resolution declared that the decision is "'an important constitutional right' that should not be overturned," and passed 51 to 47 (Washington Post, 10/22). But Harkin said the vote indicated that the "legal right to an abortion 'is hanging by a thread,'" and Democrats promised to make the vote a campaign issue. "I think it should set off alarm bells all over this country," Harkin said, adding, "The basic right to reproductive choice could be taken away." Laura Murphy of the ACLU said the "vote on the resolution should be a wake-up call to pro-choice advocates." She added, "The state of Roe v. Wade is in perilous condition" (Washington Times, 10/22). Vice President Al Gore said, "Today's vote by the Republicans in the U.S. Senate should serve as a wake up call to all Americans as to what is truly at stake in this election." He added that the vote "shows how perilously close we are to an anti-choice majority in this Congress" (Gore release, 10/21). NARAL's Kate Michelman said, "The Harkin amendment clearly demonstrates that pro-choice legislators are fighting back against egregious attempts to curtail a woman's right to choose. ... But the fact remains that 47 U.S. Senators ... voted in opposition to Roe and the right to choose" (NARAL release, 10/21). CRLP's Janet Benshoof said, "Those Senators who voted against Roe are radically out of sync with a majority of the American people, who support a woman's right to choose" (CRLP release, 10/21). But Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the pro-life Traditional Values Coalition, said the vote was "obviously an attempt to gut partial-birth. This doesn't send alarm bells. It is a ploy."
House Sentiment Shifts
Once "a bastion of antiabortion sentiment," this year the House of Representatives "has become more supportive of abortion rights," the Washington Post reports. When Republicans reclaimed the majority in the House in 1995, they "imposed an array of abortion-related restrictions," including a ban on abortion funding for women in federal prisons, as well as a prohibition on abortion at military bases. While these restrictions remain in place, "reproductive rights advocates have made inroads in other fronts this year." The Post attributes the shift to two factors: "a modest increase" in the number of lawmakers favoring abortion rights and a "deliberate ... effort by GOP leaders to deemphasize the issue in the annual process of crafting spending bills." The Post reports that House leaders have worked hard this year to keep conservatives from attaching abortion restrictions to appropriations bills. For example, the Post reports that "Republicans shepherded a foreign aid bill that provided $25 million in international family planning funds Congress had eliminated last year while resisting efforts to impose abortion-related restrictions on the money." Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-TX) said that although Republicans want "to give the president as little reason to veto as necessary for reasons other than money," withholding abortion amendments "is a tough thing to do [because abortion] is an issue of the heart." In addition, lawmakers agreed for the second year to provide contraceptive coverage for federal employees, as well as to drop language from this year's Agriculture Appropriations bill that would block the FDA from spending funds to approve RU-486. Conservatives on the House Appropriations Committee agreed to avoid abortion restrictions in the Labor-HHS appropriations bill, dropping one measure that would have required parental notification for minors to obtain contraception at federally funded clinics and another that would have prevented such clinics from housing abortion clinics in the same building. A third measure would have banned the use of embryos in federally funded stem cell research. Still, the House did pass two "high-profile" antiabortion measures this year, including one that would prohibit an adult from taking a minor across state lines for an abortion and another that would make it a separate crime to injure a fetus when attacking a pregnant woman. Clinton has issued veto threats against both bills, and neither has passed the Senate.
Mad in Maine
Just weeks before the vote on a statewide referendum that would ban "partial-birth" abortion, two Maine television stations this week refused to air a new antiabortion commercial sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Portland. Calling the advertisement "misleading and inappropriate for young viewers," station managers at Portland's WSCH and Bangor's WLBZ declined to air the 30-second spot, which features the image of a mother and her newborn, "born just a few days ago," with the voice-over declaring that "at that same age, a partial-birth abortion can still be performed in Maine, the kind where an actual live birth partially happens before the abortion is carried out" (Carrier, Portland Press Herald, 10/19). Dr. Lani Graham, Maine's former State Health Officer, said that the ad was appalling, noting it fails to mention that such a scenario is very rare, as the state has banned third-trimester abortions since 1973, except in cases to protect a woman's life or health. "I feel very concerned about the deceptiveness of this advertisement," Graham said at a press conference Monday (Weinstein, Portland Press Herald, 10/19). Judy Horan, general manager at WLBZ agreed, adding that the ad "'muddies the waters' by giving the mistaken impression that partial-birth abortions normally involve late-term fetuses," when, in actuality, the fetus is usually much younger and "far less viable than the full-term baby pictured." Although the ad is similar to a previous one run by the stations, Steve Thaxton, president and general manager of WCSH, said that he did not feel comfortable airing it. He noted that "any commercial on the abortion referendum is 'out of bounds' if it is so arresting that 'my seven-year-old sees this and starts asking questions about the procedure.'" A spokesperson for the Diocese of Portland called the move "unfair," saying it is "difficult for us to get our message out when we are being blockaded." The controversy comes as a new statewide poll of 400 "likely voters" indicated that almost 50% support the ban, while 40% oppose it and almost 9% remain undecided (Press Herald, 10/19).