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Partial-birth abortion ban clears Senate, likely to become law

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal prohibition on a grisly method of abortion cleared its first important barrier on the way to what finally appears will be its enactment into law.

The U.S. Senate approved the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act in a 64-33 vote March 13. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to easily pass the legislation, which outlaws a procedure that involves the killing of a nearly totally delivered baby normally in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy. If so, the bill will arrive on the desk for the first time of a president who is committed to signing it into law.

Immediately after the Senate’s action, President Bush said he looked forward to endorsing the ban.

“Partial-birth abortion is an abhorrent procedure that offends human dignity, and I commend the Senate for passing legislation to ban it,” the president said in a written statement. “Today’s action is an important step toward building a culture of life in America.”

Pro-life leaders applauded the vote.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said “defenders of the sanctity of all human life should draw encouragement and inspiration” from the lopsided vote.”

“And unlike previous bills, this one is awaited by a president who is eager to sign it into law instead of vetoing it,” Land said. “This is yet one more encouraging sign that the pro-life movement is winning the long-term struggle for hearts and minds on the issue of life in the womb. This is but the first significant step in the struggle to reassert the sanctity-of-life ethic upon which this nation was founded. As the Declaration of Independence asserts, we believe ‘that all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,'” including life.

Focus on the Family President James Dobson called the vote a “victory for our nation and for the most vulnerable members of the human family — babies who are literally a heartbeat away from being born. Any society that condones infanticide cannot call itself civilized. Partial-birth abortion not only represents an assault on voiceless and powerless babies, but it dulls our senses as a nation.”

The method typically 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.

Twice before, Congress approved bans on the procedure only to have them vetoed by President Clinton. In both 1996 and 1998, the House achieved the two-thirds majorities necessary to override vetoes, but the Senate fell short.

In 2000, the Supreme Court overturned 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.

Congressional supporters of the ban drafted a new version that sought to address the court’s contention that 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. The bill newly approved by the Senate 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.

Opponents, however, argued the changes were not sufficient to pass a legal challenge. The National Abortion Federation promised to sue in federal court immediately after Bush signs it into law in order to block its enforcement.

The House approved the new proposal last year in a 274-151 vote, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D.-S.D., failed to bring it to the floor for a vote. The GOP’s recapture of the majority in the November elections breathed new life into the partial-birth ban in the new session.

In the Senate’s March 13 vote, 16 Democrats – including Daschle, now the minority leader — joined 48 Republicans in the majority. Three Republicans — Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine — voted with 29 Democrats and independent James Jeffords of Vermont against the bill. Three Democrats did not vote.

Before approving the bill, the Senate rejected four unfriendly amendments offered by Democrats.

It approved, however, a non-binding resolution affirming the 1973 Supreme Court opinion legalizing abortion, in effect, throughout all stages of pregnancy and for unlimited reasons. The measure, offered by Sen. Tom Harkin, D.-Iowa, expressed the Senate’s belief that Roe v. Wade “was appropriate and secures an important constitutional right,” and should not be reversed.

The vote for the pro-Roe resolution was 52-46, with nine GOP members joining 42 Democrats and Jeffords in the majority. Five Democrats voted with the Republicans against it.

The Southern Baptist Convention approved resolutions condemning the partial-birth procedure in both 1996 and 2002. Last year, messengers easily passed a proposal from the floor calling for Bush to make enactment of a ban on the method a high priority.