Abortion Bill Approved By House

The House voted Wednesday to ban a procedure that abortion foes call "partial birth" abortion, moving the restriction a crucial step closer to President Bush's signature.

With the 282-139 vote, Congress was on the verge of ending a practice that Rep. Steve Chabot said was "truly a national tragedy."

Abortion rights groups said they would challenge it in court as soon as it becomes law, thrusting the issue of the ban's constitutionality toward a divided Supreme Court.

The ban would impose one of the most significant restrictions on abortion since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision recognizing abortion rights. Ken Connor, president of the anti-abortion Family Research Council, said passage was indicative of "a tide that is running against Roe v. Wade, which will eventually be dismantled."

President Bush - unlike former President Clinton, who twice vetoed partial birth abortion bans - urged Congress in his State of the Union address in January to give him a bill he could sign.

The Supreme Court in 2000, by a 5-4 vote, struck down a similar Nebraska state law as unconstitutional, but a court ruling this time could coincide with the possible resignation of a judge and the president's nomination of a new, more conservative member.

"President Bush is taking the first step in banning all abortion procedures and ultimately banning abortion," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "This is really serious."

For his part, President Bush says the legislation will "help build a culture of life in America."

Republicans have been trying since they captured control of the House in 1995 to prohibit doctors from committing an "overt act" to kill a partially delivered fetus. Partial birth is described as a case in which the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother or, in the event of a breech delivery, if "any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."

President Bush, after Senate passage, called it an "abhorrent procedure that offends human dignity."

There's considerable disagreement on the scope of the measure. Anti-abortion groups say it is used commonly in the last trimester on healthy babies of healthy mothers. Opponents of the bill say the procedure known as dilation and extraction is performed only rarely, and that the vague definition in the legislation could make other procedures used in the second trimester legally questionable.

The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, passed in nearly identical form by the Senate last March, 64-33. In what was probably a fleeting victory of the abortion rights side, the Senate voted, 52-46, in support of a nonbinding amendment endorsing the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights. The amendment is likely to get removed in a House-Senate conference.

Opponents of the partial birth bill, led by Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and James Greenwood, R-Pa., are offering an alternative that would make it illegal to perform any abortion procedure after the fetus has become viable, unless the doctor determines that it is necessary to preserve a woman's life or protect her from serious adverse health consequences.

The Senate defeated a similar alternative, with opponents arguing that the health exception offered too large a loophole for doctors to perform abortions.

The bill, which makes it a crime for a doctor to perform the procedure opponents call partial birth abortion, includes an exemption for cases in which the life of the mother is jeopardized, but not for general health reasons.

The Supreme Court, in Stenberg v. Carhart, struck down a similar Nebraska law on the grounds that it lacked a health exception to protect the mother and it placed an "undue burden" on a woman's right to choose because the definition of the banned procedure was too vague.

Chabot said Tuesday they have tightened the language to meet the court's objections and have accumulated evidence to prove that the procedure is "dangerous to a woman's health, and never medically necessary."

The 2000 Supreme Court ruling sidetracked a third attempt, and a fourth attempt failed last year when the Senate, then under Democratic control, refused to take up the measure.

By Jim Abrams