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House easily OKs partial-birth abortion ban; Senate uncertain

WASHINGTON (BP)–The House of Representatives once again has acted to prohibit a grisly abortion procedure, this time with a new version of a ban struck down two years ago by the Supreme Court.

On July 24, the House voted 274-151 for the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act, H.R. 4965. While 208 Republicans voted for the measure, 65 Democrats and an independent also supported it. Only nine GOP members joined with 141 Democrats and an independent in opposition.

President Bush has promised to sign the bill into law, but it may never arrive on his desk. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D.-S.D., has blocked other pro-life bills this session, and he appeared noncommittal at best when asked about the partial-birth abortion ban on the same day the House passed it.

Pro-life advocates praised the House action and called for the Senate to act as well to outlaw a method that involves the killing of a nearly totally delivered baby normally in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy.

“We’re delighted that the House voted in an overwhelmingly bipartisan way to end this horrific procedure,” said Shannon Royce, director for government relations at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “We hope and pray the Senate will take up the bill and pass it before the August recess.”

House Majority Leader Dick Armey said, “The House has acted in plenty of time for the Senate to do the same. No excuses, no delay. [This bill] must not become another tombstone in the Senate’s legislative graveyard.”

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, predicted the Senate will approve the bill if there is a “clean up-and-down vote. If the ban on partial-birth abortion does not reach President Bush for his signature, the blame will rest squarely on the Senate Democratic leadership.”

As popularized by some doctors, the method involves the delivery of an intact baby feet first until only the head is left in the birth canal. The doctor pierces the base of the baby’s skull with surgical scissors, then inserts a catheter into the opening and suctions out the brain.

The House and Senate have twice before passed a ban on the procedure, but President Clinton vetoed the measures in 1996 and ’97. The House gained the two-thirds majority necessary for a veto override both times, but the Senate fell short. The Senate managed 64 votes last time, only three short of an override.

In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down a state law patterned after the federal ban. The high court voted 5-4 to strike down a Nebraska ban on partial-birth abortion in its Stenberg v. Carhart opinion. The Nebraska measure was one of 27 state laws patterned after the federal legislation.

The new House version seeks to address the court’s contention the Nebraska law could have been interpreted to cover other abortion methods, as well as the justices’ declaration the ban needed an exception for maternal health reasons.

H.R. 4965 provides more specific language on the procedure it seeks to prohibit. It also declares in its findings the method is neither safe for women nor necessary to preserve their health. It includes an exception to protect the mother’s life.

The lack of an exception for the mother’s health was a point of contention in debate on the House floor before the vote.

The health exception “is in the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, whether we like it or not. We have to put it in a bill if we want the bill to be constitutional,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D.-N.Y.

While some of the aspects concerning the bill may be arguable, Rep. Mike Pence, R.-Ind., said, “What is not arguable is that this practice is inherently and morally wrong.

“Today we will render unlawful or at least begin to render unlawful what virtually every American knows in their heart is evil and morally wrong,” Pence said. “Justice has always been defined by how societies protect the innocent and punish those who do them harm. The Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act is such a bill. Of the innocent and defenseless, the Bible admonishes that ‘whatsoever you do for the least of these you do for me.’ Banning partial-birth abortion is the least we can do for the least of these.”

Rep. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., said Congress should continue in an attempt for the Supreme Court to “have them get it right,” adding, “You would not be satisfied with Dred Scott, would you?”

Dred Scott, officially Scott v. Sandford, was the high court’s 1857 opinion that said blacks could not be United States citizens. The majority opinion also said slaves were property.

When asked about the ban on the day the House approved it, Daschle said he had not made a decision on it, but he had been told it “may not be in keeping with court interpretation of the rights of a woman,” The Washington Times reported.

According to The Times, Daschle said he voted for the ban the last time “because I felt the only way to resolve this matter was to resolve it in the courts. And it was resolved in the court the first time.”

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission sent Rep. Steve Chabot, R.-Ohio, chief sponsor of the bill, a letter July 10 supporting the measure. With it, ERLC President Richard Land included a copy of this year’s SBC resolution endorsing a partial-birth abortion ban.

At the convention, messengers overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for Bush to make enactment of a ban on partial-birth abortion a “high priority.” The resolution was the only one approved by messengers that was not offered by the Resolutions Committee. Rick Reeder, a messenger from Kentucky, presented it from the floor and easily gained the two-thirds majority needed for consideration.

In his letter, Land called the approach “relatively unusual and demonstrates the depth of feeling among Southern Baptists on the issue of partial-birth abortion.”

The SBC also approved a resolution condemning the procedure in 1996.