Senate Expected to Approve Ban on Abortion Procedure Today
By DAVID STOUT
Published: October 21, 2003
ASHINGTON, Oct. 21 — Debate was under way in the Senate today on a bill to ban a procedure that has stirred deep emotions in the long struggle over abortion.
The Senate was expected to pass the ban on the procedure, described by abortion foes as "partial birth abortion," before the end of business today. With House passage of the bill three weeks ago, the Senate's expected action today will send the bill to President Bush, who is eager to sign it.
With Mr. Bush's signature, the bill will become — on paper, if not in effect — the first federal ban on a specific abortion method since a woman's constitutional right to have an abortion was established in 1973 by the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.
"We believe that this bill is constitutionally sound and obviously very, very necessary in terms of who we are as a society," said Senator Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican who is the bill's chief sponsor and one of the Senate's most outspoken opponents of abortion.
Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, expressed an opposite view. Anticipating the Senate vote, she said the legislation "for the first time in history bans a medical procedure without making any exception for the health of the woman." She predicted that it was "clearly going to be declared unconstitutional."
The law moving through the Senate today would make it a crime for doctors to perform what is known in the medical profession as "intact dilation and extraction," a procedure occasionally used in the second and third trimesters. Opponents of the law have expressed fears that its language is broad enough to cover other procedures as well.
President Bill Clinton twice vetoed bans on the procedure because they did not include exceptions to protect the health of the woman. But with Republicans now in control of both houses of Congress, as well as the White House, the legislation was bound to come up again.
The House passed the bill by 281 to 142 on Oct. 3. A similarly wide margin is expected in the Senate.
The legislation faces formidable hurdles in the courts, where opponents of the bill have vowed to challenge it.
On June 28, 2000, the Supreme Court ruled, in overturning a Nebraska law, that the government could not prohibit doctors from using the procedure, because it might be the most medically appropriate way of terminating some pregnancies. The justices also declared the Nebraska law faulty because it did not contain an exception to protect the health of the woman.
That ruling upheld a lower federal court in striking down the Nebraska law and by extension the laws of some 30 other states. The vote was 5 to 4, narrow enough to make abortion-rights proponents nervous. But the lineup of justices has not changed, so there is no reason to think the court's underlying support for the right to abortion has changed either.
But there is every reason to think the fight over "partial-birth abortion," which is not a recognized medical term, will go on, like the debate over abortion in general.
The coming election year will surely intensify the debate. So will the inevitable vacancies on the Supreme Court, as politicians study the court nominees' records and comments on abortion.