Abortion opponents rejoiced Tuesday as the Senate sent to President Bush legislation that would outlaw a specific procedure to terminate pregnancies, and that will be the first federal law restricting abortions since the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling three decades ago.
The White House immediately issued a statement from Bush hailing the “very important legislation that will end an abhorrent practice and continue to build a culture of life in America. I look forward to signing it into law.”
Anticipating Bush’s signature, abortion-rights groups immediately moved to block the measure in court. The case is expected to reach the Supreme Court, which already has ruled that similar state legislation is unconstitutional.
Under the legislation, doctors who perform the procedure, which opponents call “partial-birth abortion,” could face fines or prison terms, and certain family members could sue doctors for damages.
“This is Congress criminalizing physician judgment,” said Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood. “Our intent is to be in court before the ink is dry on the president’s signature.”
Anti-abortion groups hailed the 64-34 vote as the culmination of years of effort to restrict abortions. The House of Representatives had already approved the measure. Congress twice sent similar legislation to former President Bill Clinton, who vetoed it.
“The only difference this time is that we have a president who has said he is willing to sign this legislation,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the lead sponsor of the bill.
The ban would focus on a specific technique in which a fetus is partially delivered, then killed. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says the procedure is a “rare variant” of the dilation and evacuation procedure common in midterm abortions. The group opposes the ban.
The only exception to the ban would be if the procedure were performed to save the life of the woman. Republicans earlier rejected amendments that also would have provided such exceptions to protect the health of the woman.
The overwhelming vote in favor of the ban reflected deep misgivings about the procedure even among lawmakers who typically support a woman’s right to abortion.
The vote also rekindled passions at the heart of the national debate on abortion. Advocates of the ban argued for protective rights for the fetus, while abortion-rights supporters emphasized sustaining the rights of women.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a leading Senate advocate of abortion rights, denounced the bill for failing to include language protecting the health of a woman.
“Don’t we love the women in our lives?” she asked. “How could we pass a bill that would say, even if a woman’s health is threatened, this procedure can’t be used?”
The issue of protecting a woman’s health could be crucial in court. Three years ago, the Supreme Court declared Nebraska’s “partial-birth abortion” ban unconstitutional. The court, in the case of Stenberg v. Carhart, said the Nebraska law failed to provide an exception “for the preservation of the health of the mother.” In its 5-4 ruling, the court also concluded that the Nebraska law was so broad that it could outlaw other abortion procedures and, thus, restrict the ability of women “to choose abortion itself.”
Republicans said the new federal ban is much more specific and predicted it would overcome the justices’ concerns. They also included several pages of “findings” that argue that the “partial birth” procedure is never needed to preserve the life of a woman.
Feldt, in an interview, said abortion foes realize the current Supreme Court may strike down the new measure, but are counting on judges to retire whom Bush can replace.
“They hope that by the time they get to the Supreme Court it will be a different Supreme Court,” she said.
Applauding the Senate vote, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, declared: “This is not the end of the abortion debate.”
On that, there was no debate.