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Background: “Partial-Birth” Abortions

May 15, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Two years ago, the Senate joined the House in passing a ban of a particular kind of late-term abortion procedure. But a few months later, President Clinton vetoed the so-called partial birth abortion ban. He said such a procedure is the only alternative for some women with catastrophic pregnancies and is used only rarely.

SPOKESMAN: HR. 1122, an act to amend Title 18, United States Code, to ban partial birth abortions.

KWAME HOLMAN: Now, most Republican supporters of the ban–such as Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum–are back, armed with new reports suggesting thousands of such abortions are performed each year, rather than the hundreds previously estimated.

SENATOR RICK SANTORUM, (R) Pennsylvania: Those set of facts they now admit to are different than what they were saying before and different in material enough way that members who relied on that information last time, if they rely on a different set of facts this time can come to a different conclusion. That happened in the House of Representatives. Several members who voted against the partial birth abortion ban changed their positions in light of those–that new information supported the legislation and supported it in such–to such a degree that it passed with over 290 votes which is the necessary vote to override a presidential veto.

KWAME HOLMAN: The House did that in March. Santorum says it’s time for the Senate to do the same.

SENATOR RICK SANTORUM: So now we have this little baby that’s outside of the mother, and a doctor takes some scissors and jams it right here, right in the back–the base of the skull. And that soft baby skull–you know, those of you who’ve had children, how soft that–skull is. And they thrust the scissors into the base of the skull.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 1997 defines the procedure as partial delivery of a fetus before it is killed. That would be banned, except to save the woman’s life. Physicians who perform such a procedure otherwise would be subject to a fine, up to two years in prison, or both.

SENATOR SPENCER ABRAHAM, (R) Michigan: We should be able to end this process, and we should be able to end it in the context of this legislation, which provides, I think, protections for the life of the mother in sufficient fashion to meet whatever standards society might demand.

KWAME HOLMAN: A Democratic amendment was briefly considered and rejected, giving way to the major alternative of the abortion debate. The bill by Minority Leader Tom Daschle has attracted support of Republicans and yesterday the endorsement of President Clinton.

SENATOR TOM DASCHLE, Minority Leader: That is really the fundamental difference between the two pending bills. We ban abortion; they ban a procedure. They allow all the other abortive procedures available–dilation and evacuation, induction, hysterotomies, hysterectomies–those are still legally available. What we ban are all of those procedures–all of them.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Daschle alternative would outlaw any abortion after a fetus can survive outside the womb, generally after six months. Such abortions would be legal only if the pregnancy threatened the woman’s life or poses risk of grievous injury. Most Republicans, however, argue the Daschle ban amounts to no abortion ban at all.

SENATOR MIKE DeWINE, (R) Ohio: If we pass the Daschle amendment and require this concept of physician certification, that the pregnancy would risk grievous injury, I believe that clearly would render this bill meaningless. I think it’s a moral dodge. I think it puts us to sleep. It’s a way we can try to convince ourselves that it’s okay; this amendment’s okay, even though, in effect, we’re tolerating something very, very bad. Give myself an additional 30 seconds, Mr. President. But Mr. President, we are not okay. We know what’s going on behind the curtain, and we can’t wish that knowledge away, however much we would like to. We have to face it and we have to do what’s right. And that means passing this bill to ban this barbaric, inhuman, unconscionable practice. And, again, with respect my distinguished colleague, Minority Leader, it also means–it also means we must vote this amendment down.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, a co-sponsor of the Daschle bill, disagreed.

SENATOR OLYMPIA SNOWE, (R) Maine: To critics who say the Daschle language contains a loophole because it leaves it to the doctor to determine when a fetus is viable, well, I ask, who is in a better position than a doctor to determine this? Certainly not the federal government, certainly not the United States Senate. And I know that some would think they’re omnipotent, but certainly not the U.S. House of Representatives, certainly not politicians to make this determination. This is a determination that should be made by the physician and the physician alone.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate is scheduled to vote on the Daschle alternative later tonight. Passage would set up a confrontation with the House, which overwhelmingly endorse the Republican abortion ban.