The drive to stop what opponents call partial birth abortion "will finally become law and the performance of this barbaric procedure will finally come to an end," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Critics said the partial birth ban, twice vetoed by President Clinton, was part of a larger agenda to undermine the 1973 Supreme Court decision supporting a woman's right to end a pregnancy. It's "an attempt to whittle away at a woman's constitutional right to her privacy and control of her body," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.
The bill, passed 281-142, could be taken up by the Senate as early as Friday. Bush's signature would make it the first federal law since Roe v. Wade in 1973 to restrict a specific abortion procedure.
"This will be an important step toward building a culture of life in America," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who praised the House and urged the Senate "to move quickly on this important piece of legislation as well."
Some 30 states have varying versions of partial birth bans, and opponents have successfully challenged most of those laws. Most significantly, in 2000 the Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, ruled that a Nebraska law was unconstitutional because it did not have an exception for the health of the mother and was so vague as to leave unclear what medical practices were being prohibited.
Clinton, in his two vetoes, also argued that there must be a health exception.
Supporters of the ban, led in the House by Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said the House-Senate compromise bill being considered has tightened the definition of the banned procedure and contains findings to prove that the practice is never needed to protect a woman's health.
Partial birth is not a medically accepted term, but as defined by the bill it is a procedure in which the fetus is killed after 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." Doctors who perform the procedure would be subject to up to two years in prison.
There's disagreement about how often such abortions are performed. Defenders say it is sometimes the safest way to protect the health and future fertility of the mother when an abortion is found to be necessary during the second and third trimester of a pregnancy.
Both sides agree that the symbolic importance of the ban would be enormous. Anti-abortion groups say it would give momentum to other limitations on abortion, while abortion rights groups say the ultimate goal is to erode support for that 1973 decision on abortion rights, known as Roe v. Wade.