Senate Approves Ban on So-Called ‘Partial-Birth’ Abortion
The Senate on Tuesday voted 64-34 to approve a bill (S 3) that would ban so-called "partial-birth" abortion, the Washington Post reports (Dewar, Washington Post, 10/22). The House on Oct. 2 voted 281-142 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, would apply 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." If the measure becomes law, doctors who perform the procedure could face fines and prison sentences of up to two years. The version of the bill passed by the House and the Senate omits a nonbinding resolution expressing support for the Roe v. Wade decision, which was included in the original Senate version of the bill (California Healthline, 10/3). On Tuesday, 17 Democrats joined 47 Republicans in voting to approve the ban, according to the Knight Ridder/Chicago Tribune. Three Republicans were joined by 31 Democrats in voting against the measure (Zuckman, Knight Ridder/Chicago Tribune, 10/22). The measure now goes to President Bush, who has said he is "eager" to sign it, according to the Post (Washington Post, 10/22). Bush is currently traveling in Asia but is expected to return to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, according to the Boston Globe (Denniston, Boston Globe, 10/22). Bills banning partial-birth abortion have been passed by the House and Senate twice before, but President Clinton vetoed the bills, according to the Wall Street Journal (Foley, Wall Street Journal, 10/22). If the bill is signed into law, it would be the first federal law criminalizing an established abortion procedure, according to the Los Angeles Times (Hook, Los Angeles Times, 10/22).
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, according to the New York Times. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that the partial-birth abortion ban will "save lives," adding, "We have just outlawed a procedure that is barbaric, that is brutal, that is offensive to our moral sensibilities and it is out of the mainstream of the ethical practice of medicine today" (Gay Stolberg, New York Times, 10/22). Bush said the partial-birth abortion ban will "end an abhorrent practice and continue to build a culture of life in America" (Kiely, USA Today, 10/22). However, abortion-rights supporters said the ban is the first step toward a ban on all abortion procedures, according to the Washington Times (Washington Times, 10/22). Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said, "Women's right to choose is in greater danger now than it has been at any time since the Supreme Court issued the Roe v. Wade decision 30 years ago" (Washington Post, 10/22). Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said, "I see where this is going: A couple of votes here or there in the next election, you can kiss Roe v. Wade goodbye" (Fagan, Washington Times, 10/22). Harkin, who was "angry" that the conference committee omitted the earlier Senate version with language expressing support for Roe v. Wade, said, "There are men in this chamber who believe women don't have a right to (their) reproductive rights," adding, "This vote is about whether women in this country are going to be treated as equals to men or second class citizens" (McFeatters, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10/22). Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who "led the fight" against the measure, said that the ban is a "radical, radical thing," adding that the move is the "first time in history [that] Congress is banning a medical procedure that is considered medically necessary by physicians" (Los Angeles Times, 10/22).
Abortion-rights supporters are "poised" for a court challenge of the partial-birth abortion ban, if it indeed becomes law, the Los Angeles Times reports. They say that the measure is unconstitutional because it does not include an exception for a woman's health, according to the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times, 10/22). Instead of a health exception, the bill includes a long "findings" section that includes medical evidence presented during congressional hearings that indicate that partial-birth abortion is never medically necessary (California Healthline, 10/3). Opponents of the measure will likely seek a federal injunction -- which courts usually grant when constitutional issues are involved -- in order to block implementation of the law, according to the Baltimore Sun (Baltimore Sun, 10/22). According to ACLU attorney Talcott Camp, who is planning to challenge the law in court on behalf of the National Abortion Federation and individual abortion providers, opponents of the measure will have a "very small window" in which to block the law because the ban will take effect less than a day after it is signed, according to the Globe (Boston Globe, 10/22). Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Center for Reproductive Rights are also planning to legally challenge the measure as soon as it is signed into law (Washington Post, 10/22). Laws banning partial-birth abortion have "sailed through" 31 state legislatures since 1995, according to USA Today. However, all 21 court challenges to the state laws have resulted in the bans being struck down (Kasindorf, USA Today, 10/22). Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said the law is "constitutionally sound and obviously very, very necessary" (Washington Times, 10/22). Many legal experts predict that the Supreme Court will serve as the ultimate arbiter of the legislation. The court has previously struck down as unconstitutional a Nebraska state law that banned partial-birth abortion and did not include an exception for the health of the woman (California Healthline, 10/3).
The following broadcast programs reported on the Senate ban:
- ABCNews' "World News Tonight": The segment includes comments from Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Boxer, Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), John Ensign (R-Nev.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Santorum (Douglass, "World News Tonight," ABCNews, 10/21). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- CBS' "Evening News": The segment includes comments from George Annas of the Boston University School of Public Health, Dr. Paul Blumenthal of Johns Hopkins University and Frist (Kaledin, "Evening News," CBS, 10/21). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NBC's "Nightly News": The segment includes comments from Boxer, Ensign, Harkin, Santorum, Patricia Coll of the National Right to Life Committee and Nancy Northup from the Center for Reproductive Rights (Reid, "Nightly News," NBC, 10/21). The full segment is available online in Windows Media.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment includes comments from Boxer, Northup and Santorum (Welna, "All Things Considered," NPR, 10/21). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- NPR's "Morning Edition": The segment includes comments from Boxer, Frist, Lautenberg, Northup, Santorum, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) (Welna, "Morning Edition," NPR, 10/22). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.