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Published: Friday, 3/14/2003

Partial-birth abortion bill passes vote in Senate

BY ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON - “The vast majority of the American people are against this heinous act,'' declared Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio) yesterday, moments after he helped push through the Senate a bill to ban the procedure dubbed partial-birth abortion by its opponents. The vote was 64 to 33.

The bill next goes to the Republican-controlled House, where supporters said it would pass before the end of April, and then to the White House for President Bush's promised signature.

Mr. Bush hailed the vote as an important step toward “building a culture of life in America.''

Mr. DeWine said the ban will be law by the end of the year.

Supporters of the procedure insist only 500 partial-birth abortion procedures are done each year; opponents say the figure is between 3,000 and 5,000. There are about 1 million abortions in the United States each year.

While many Republicans want to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, there is significant disagreement on how to do it. Some want a constitutional amendment. Others, including Mr. DeWine, say it is vital to get just one more anti-abortion justice on the Supreme Court. Still others say the decision should be left to each state legislature.

For eight years opponents of the partial-birth abortion procedure have fought to ban it. Twice Congress passed the ban, but former President Clinton vetoed it as improper interference in the practice of medicine and as unconstitutionally tying doctors' hands if the health of the mother is at stake.

Twice, supporters of the ban were not able to command enough votes to override his veto.

The Supreme Court in 2000 overturned a Nebraska law outlawing the procedure, saying the language was too vague and restrictive. A majority of states, including Ohio, have similar bans but the legal status of many of them is in doubt.

Now that the Senate is controlled, 51-48 (and one independent), by Republicans, Mr. DeWine said it was far easier to get the ban passed. “Partial-birth abortion was never a medically indicated procedure,'' he said. “It is well beyond the bounds of medical necessity.''

Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.), main sponsor of the bill, said, “Even supporters of Roe v. Wade agreed with me it is not a legitimate medical procedure.''

Mr. DeWine said the current bill has been tightened and refined so that it is specific and has been well-buttressed with opinions of doctors that it is not a medically recognized procedure and is not taught in medical schools. He said he is confident the measure will be taken to court but said he thinks the Supreme Court will uphold it. Opponents of the ban say they are equally convinced they have a chance to have it declared unconstitutional.

Although abortion-rights advocates decried the Senate vote yesterday as unfairly “criminalizing a safe, legal abortion procedure,'' they said they were glad the Senate also endorsed a resolution that the Roe v. Wade decision was “appropriate and secures an important constitutional right.'' That nonbinding vote, 52-46, was designed by abortion-rights advocates as a way to put the Senate on record against efforts to overturn the 1973 court ruling.

The resolution's sponsor, Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), said, “The bad news is that 46 United States senators voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.''

The debate this past week on the Senate floor was impassioned and at times grisly, as opponents of the procedure showed drawings and described it as a way of partially delivering a viable fetus and then killing it by putting a needle in the base of the skull halfway through the birth. They said no civilized society should tolerate such a procedure.

But opponents of a congressional ban of the procedure said they resented the tactics involved in the debate.

They invoked stories of women who said the procedure was the only way to safely abort a deformed fetus and give them the option to have more children.

And, they said, they fear the ban will be extended to other abortion procedures.

Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, “The passage of this legislation demonstrates how devastating the elections of 2002 were in giving control of the Senate to anti-choice leadership.

Now women have no firewall between them and those who want to take away the right to choose.''

Rep. Steve Chabot (R., Cincinnati), who will push the measure in the House, said that he hopes passage of the measure will point the way toward outlawing all abortions.

He said the House will pass the same bill the Senate passed except for the resolution that endorses Roe v. Wade. That will fail in the House, he predicted, meaning a House-Senate conference committee will have to resolve the difference before the measure goes to Mr. Bush.

The bill does give physicians permission to use the procedure to save the life of the mother but not to safeguard her health.

Mr. DeWine insisted that the life exception is not a loophole for supporters of the procedure but standard language in such legislation.

Although 16 Democrats, including Senate Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, voted for the ban, the most heated opposition to the bill came from Democrats.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) said the reason the term partial-birth abortion is not in medical textbooks is that it is a political term, not a medical one.

Sometimes the procedure is the only alternative doctors have to protect the health of the mother, she argued. “The debate has gotten as ugly as I've ever seen,'' she complained.

Three Republicans voted against the ban: Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Maine's two senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Sen. Jim Jeffords, an independent from Vermont, also voted against the ban.

Mr. Santorum said Sen. Joe Biden (D., Del.) told him he would have voted for the ban if he had been present.

Two Democratic presidential candidates - Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and John Kerry of Massachusetts - also were not present and did not vote.

Mr. DeWine said the debate was good and that the public was educated about what the procedure is.



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