TOPICS > Politics

Congress and Abortion

March 13, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Over the past decade, majorities in both Houses of Congress have voted to prohibit a late-term abortion procedure opponents call partial-birth abortion. But each time the legislation reached President Clinton, it was vetoed.

SENATOR: The bill as amended is passed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, the Senate approved a slightly revised version of abortion ban, and with the House and President Bush’s support virtually assured, the ban against so-called “partial birth abortions” could become law next month. Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum was the bill’s chief sponsor.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM: This isn’t taught in any medical school. It isn’t done in any hospital. It isn’t done by any obstetrician. This is a rogue procedure for the convenience and economic benefit of abortionists and abortion clinics. Of course, it is not medically necessary. It is not even medically recognized.

KWAME HOLMAN: A partial birth abortion, as described in the bill, is a procedure in which: “The entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of a breech delivery, if any part of the fetal trunk past the naval is outside the body of the mother.” The legislation prohibits doctors from committing an “overt act” designed to kill a partially delivered fetus.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM: We said the person performing the abortion deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus, in the case of head-first presentation the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother. You do not do any other procedures where you present the head. You don’t do it. I don’t think any doctor in the land would say that you do any of these other abortions where you present the head. I mean, it is just not done.

Secondly, or in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel. So it is not a hand or a foot or an arm. It is the legs, the feet, the buttocks, and the lower part of the abdomen is outside of the mother, and in most cases the arms… the hands and arms. So that is a pretty clear definition of this procedure and cannot be– from all of the descriptions that we have received in testimony– confused with any other procedure.

KWAME HOLMAN: But California Democrat Dianne Feinstein argued the legislation was too broadly written and could make abortions unavailable for many women.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I get so annoyed when men constantly strive to take away hard-won rights from women. Respectfully, I don’t want Sen. Santorum telling me what to do with my reproductive system. I respect his views, I respect his rights, I respect his moral code, his religion, his conversations with his physician. Why can’t those same rights apply to those of us that happen to be pro-choice, particularly when a fetus is not viable, when a fetus cannot sustain life outside the womb? And that is what this is all about. Make no mistake about it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Majority Leader Bill Frist, himself a doctor, said many others in the medical community find this particular type of abortion procedure offensive and criticized those who perform it.

SEN. BILL FRIST: It is interesting that the people who developed this procedure and its loudest proponents are not surgeons, but, in fact, practitioners, and they are not board certified in a field that would be consistent with performing procedures such as this. From a medical standpoint, I took an oath to treat every human life with respect, with dignity, and with compassion. Abortion takes life away, and partial-birth abortion, this particular procedure, does so in a manner that is brutal, that is barbaric, and morally offensive to the medical community.

KWAME HOLMAN: During the weeklong debate, Senate Republicans with the help of a few Democrats, turned back efforts to modify the abortion ban. Feinstein suggested a ban on all late-term abortions unless a physician certified a woman’s life or health was threatened by continuing her pregnancy. Illinois’ Dick Durbin suggested the same ban unless two physicians certified the woman was in danger.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: So I come today understanding that division in America, that division in my state, even that division of opinion within my own family. I understand this, I feel it, and I am trying with this amendment to strike a reasonable compromise. Oh, the people with their arms folded on both sides of the hall won’t like it. It does not ban abortion, which is what some people want. And it does not get the government out of the picture completely, which is what others want. Instead, it tries to draw a reasonable, sensible line, a good-faith line, of where we will allow abortions in late- term pregnancies.

KWAME HOLMAN: But both times, a majority in the Senate rejected the amendments. The Senate also rejected a call by California’s Barbara Boxer to send the abortion bill to the Judiciary Committee. She argued the committee hadn’t reviewed the issue since June of 2000, when the Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law similar to the Santorum bill. However, in the midst of the debate, the Senate did vote to reaffirm its support for Roe v.Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to have an abortion. Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin offered the resolution.

SEN. TOM HARKIN: With all of the legislation that continues to come up and chips away at Roe v. Wade, I decided it was important for us in the Senate to go on record that this historic decision was appropriate and should not be overturned.

KWAME HOLMAN: And those who argued against the abortion ban approved today expect an almost immediate court challenge once President Bush signs it into law.