Bush Signs ‘Partial-Birth’ Abortion Ban Into Law
President Bush on Wednesday signed a bill (S 3) that bans so-called "partial-birth" abortion, enacting the first federal law to criminalize an established abortion procedure, but a federal judge in Nebraska "minutes" after the measure was signed issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Justice Department from enforcing the law in some states, the Los Angeles Times reports (Reynolds, Los Angeles Times, 11/6). The House and Senate last month voted to approve the measure, which defines partial-birth abortion as a procedure in which a fetus is partially delivered alive and a physician performs "an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus." The ban, which does not include a health exception, applies when the "entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother." Instead of a health exception, the bill includes a long "findings" section that includes medical evidence presented during congressional hearings that bill supporters say indicate that partial-birth abortion is never medically necessary. Doctors who perform the procedure could face fines and prison sentences of up to two years. Supporters of the ban say that the measure would prohibit one specific procedure, known as dilation and extraction, which is generally used for second- and third-trimester abortions. However, bill opponents say that its language is so broad that it could ban other, more common types of abortions. Because of such disagreements, it is unclear exactly how many types of abortion will be banned under the measure. Ban supporters say that thousands of partial-birth abortions are performed in the United States each year, while bill opponents say that the procedure is relatively rare (California Healthline, 10/22).
Although the law went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf of Lincoln, Neb., on Wednesday issued a temporary injunction preventing the government from enforcing the law against some abortion providers, according to the New York Times (Stevenson, New York Times, 11/6). Kopf said that the law appears to be unconstitutional because it lacks an exception for a woman's health, according to the Chicago Tribune (Kemper, Chicago Tribune, 11/6). The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of several abortion providers The CRR lawsuit claims that the federal partial-birth abortion ban is unconstitutional because it too broadly defines the procedure and does not include a health exception (California Healthline, 10/22). Kopf failed to issue a nationwide temporary injunction, instead limiting his ruling to the four doctors who brought the suit, according to USA Today (Keen, USA Today, 11/6). According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the ruling could extend beyond Nebraska because the doctors who filed the suit are licensed to provide abortions in 13 states, including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin (Hutcheson, Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/6). The injunction also applies to individuals and groups with whom the doctors work, teach, supervise or refer, according to the Omaha World-Herald (Reed, Omaha World-Herald, 11/6). Kopf has scheduled a conference next week with attorneys to determine what the next steps in the case will be. According to the World-Herald, the temporary injunction will remain in effect until Kopf receives more evidence on whether or not to issue a permanent injunction (Omaha World-Herald, 11/6). Many legal experts predict that the Supreme Court will serve as the ultimate arbiter of the legislation (California Healthline, 10/22). Legal challenges to the partial-birth abortion ban have also been filed in federal courts in New York and San Francisco, according to the Houston Chronicle (Mason, Houston Chronicle, 11/6).
Before signing the bill, Bush said in a speech that partial-birth abortion is a "terrible form of violence [that] has been directed against children who are inches from birth, while the law looked away," adding, "[A]t last, the American people and our government have confronted the violence and come to the defense of the innocent child" (Washington/ Denniston, Boston Globe, 11/6). He added that he hoped the legislation would help him and others "build a culture of life," adding, "This right to life cannot be granted or denied by government, because it does not come from government -- it comes from the creator of life" (Loven, AP/Newport News Daily Press, 11/5).
In the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., where the legislation was signed, Bush's 12-minute speech was greeted by five standing ovations, the loudest of which came when Bush said the administration "will vigorously defend this law against any who would try to overturn it in the courts" (Fireman, Long Island Newsday, 11/6). However, outside the building, a few dozen abortion-rights protestors at a demonstrators planned by the National Organization for Women held signs with messages reading, "Keep Abortion Legal" (Milbank, Washington Post, 11/6). Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that the president's signing of the partial-birth abortion ban showed the "real George Bush," adding, "If we could afford to, we would put that speech on television every day from now until the election. Any shred of doubt that this is the most anti-choice president this country has ever had has been convincingly erased" (Curl, Washington Times, 11/6). James Dobson, chair of Focus on the Family, "praised" Bush for signing the bill, according to the New York Daily News. "America has finally put an end to a procedure so horrendous that it could have been a favorite tactic in the torture chambers of Nazi Germany," Dobson said (Bazinet, New York Daily News, 11/6). PPFA President Gloria Feldt said that the new law will "set back decades of progress in achieving reproductive freedom" (Newark Star-Ledger, 11/6).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.