A Divisive Debate
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JIM LEHRER: The congressional politics of abortion. Kwame Holman reports.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today for the fourth time since they took over the House in 1995 Republicans led the way to an overwhelming vote to outlaw a kind of late-term abortion procedure they call “partial-birth” abortion. After each previous vote either the Senate did not concur or President Clinton vetoed the bill.
SPOKESPERSON: The question is what the House on reconsideration passed the bill, the objections of the President to the contrary notwithstanding.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today’s vote was more than large enough to override President Clinton’s latest veto of the bill last October. As usual, the ban passed with near unanimous Republican support.
SUE MYRICK, (R) North Carolina: Partial-birth abortion is a horrific way to end the life of a tiny nine-month-old baby. It has no place in a civilized society. This shouldn’t be a divisive issue. We’re talking about killing, killing healthy babies.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats, most of whom oppose the ban, say Republicans’ real target is all abortion.
REP. DIANA DeGETTE, (D) Colorado: Their goal is not ultimately to ban a specific medical procedure, but it is ultimately to outlaw abortion altogether.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats also say it’s no accident today’s vote comes just three months ahead of the congressional elections. They say Republicans deliberately have scheduled votes on several issues involving reproductive rights.
REP. KEN BENTSEN, (D) Texas: This bill is about politics. Now, last week we had vote on taking away abortion rights, and let me read what one of my colleagues said. “I want this to be a campaign issue. This is going to be great,” he said, adding, that his colleagues who opposed abortion restrictions will face fierce questions in their districts. They’d better be prepared to defend themselves because we’re going to have the grassroots out there talking about it. That’s what this is about.
KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, surrounded by religious leaders, House Speaker Newt Gingrich praised today’s anti-abortion vote but said nothing about politics. However, Gingrich and House Republican leaders are trying to put abortion and related issues in the forefront to energize socially conservative voters, according to a top leadership aide.
Last Wednesday in the House the issue was minors and abortion. The House voted overwhelmingly to make it a federal misdemeanor for anyone, other than a parent or a legal guardian to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion. Most Republicans, including sponsor Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, support the bill.
REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN, (R) Florida: This bill, Mr. Speaker, does not implement a federal notification or consent law. It merely helps states to enforce their laws to ensure that parents are able to comfort and advise their minor daughter during this crisis pregnancy. Congress should send a clear message across America that we stand for parental rights; that we will not allow strangers to take advantage and exploit our young daughters.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat argued the bill to protect minors would just erect another barrier to legal abortion.
REP. NITA LOWEY, (D) New York: I believe that those young women who cannot go to their parents should be encouraged to involve another responsible adult, a grandmother or an aunt in this difficult decision. Already more than half of all young women who not involve a parent in the decision to terminate a pregnancy choose to involve another adult, including 15 percent who involve another adult relative, and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, this bill will impose criminal penalties on adults like grandmothers who come to the aid of their granddaughters.
KWAME HOLMAN: Nonetheless, about a quarter of House Democrats joined Republicans to pass the bill overwhelmingly.
Reproductive rights were debated again the very next day, this time brought up by a Democrat. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut introduced a measure that would allow federal employee health insurance plans to pay for abortion. Immediately New Jersey Republican Christopher Smith, a vocal abortion opponent, led the charge to defeat the amendment.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH, (R) New Jersey: Let me remind members that in virtually every poll-and I have a whole list of them here-when people are asked, do you want to subsidize or have the government pay for abortions, the answer is clearly and unambiguously no.
KWAME HOLMAN: The same day Democrats introduced a measure that would allow federal workers health insurance to cover the five standard methods of contraception. Eventually a heated discussion arose over when conception occurs and what constitutes an abortion, pitting Democrat Nita Lowey of New York against Republican Smith.
REP. NITA LOWEY: I would like to ask the gentleman to define further his motion, his amendment. Based upon the information that we have the FDA has approved five methods of contraception.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH: If the gentle lady would yield. Let me just ask the gentle lady because this will help in me responding-when–her definition of contraception–is it before fertilization occurs, or is it before implantation in the uterus?
REP. NITA LOWEY: Will the gentleman repeat himself.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH: Part of the problem that we have with the gentle lady’s first amendment, as well as the amendment that was offered and just passed, is the definition of one. How do you define contraception? How do you define pregnancy? For some it is implantation, for some it is fertilization.
REP. NITA LOWEY: Reclaiming my time.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH: Contraception by definition should mean before a new life has come into being.
KWAME HOLMAN: As the floor finally continued past 9 PM last Thursday, it ultimately drew the attention of Connecticut Republican Nancy Johnson, known as a moderate and a respected voice in the House. She spoke to members on both sides of the aisle.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: Members have to be very sensitive to what my colleague from New Jersey is attempting to do here today. Is there no limit to your willingness to impose your concept of when life begins on others? Conception is a process. Fertilization of the egg is part of that process, but if that fertilized egg doesn’t get implanted it doesn’t grow, and so on throughout the course of pregnancy. For those who don’t believe that life begins upon fertilization but believes, in fact, that that fertilized egg has to be implanted, you are imposing your judgment as to when life begins on that person and in so doing denying them what might be the safest means of contraception available to them. Some women can’t take the pill, it’s too disruptive to them. Some women depend on the intrauterine coil and things like that and when we get to the point where we did have the courage to do more research in contraception, we’ll have a great deal of other options to offer women so they can have safe contraception.
For us to make the decision that that woman must choose a means of contraception that reflects any one individual’s determination as to when in that process of conception life actually begins is a level of intrusion into conscience, into independence, into freedom that frankly I have never witnessed. Even the issue of being for or against abortion is a different issue than what we debate at night, tonight. We have never ever intruded to this depth. The lines are not clear. They are not simple and I would ask to respect that we are a nation founded on the belief that we should have freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. And this deeply, deeply compromises those liberties.
KWAME HOLMAN: After Johnson’s statement and to the applause of Republicans and Democrats, her position prevailed. The Smith amendment was defeated and the insurance coverage for contraceptives remained intact. But despite the pre-election focus on abortion and related issues in the House, all the bills, including today’s anti-abortion measure, now go to the Senate, where their fate is uncertain.