A Senate subcommittee yesterday approved, 4 to 0, a constitutional amendment that would permit Congress or any of the states to outlaw abortion.
The so-called "human life federalism" amendment, voted out of the subcommittee just hours before the Senate went home for the year, provides that "the right to abortion is not secured" by the Constitution. It is the first anti-abortion amendment that has advanced out of a Senate panel since abortions were legalized by a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
But the amendment, sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), faces an uncertain future when the Senate returns next year. It has been universally opposed by groups favoring legalized abortion and denounced as a "sellout" by many anti-abortion groups that want an amendment that puts an outright ban on abortion.
Paul Brown, director of the Life Amendment Political Action Committee, testified yesterday that the amendment "jeopardizes all that the pro-life movement has worked for during the past eight years, threatens to split the pro-life movement along pragmatic and religious lines, and would accomplish nothing."
His comments reflect a split, with religious overtones, that has developed among abortion opponents in recent months.
One group, led by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, favors the Hatch amendment with its states' rights approach. Others, including Protestant evangelicals, favor an amendment with an outright ban on abortion, or legislation declaring that human life begins at conception, thus giving the fetus the legal rights of a human being.
The human life bill, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), was passed by the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on separation of powers last July. The Hatch amendment was approved by the Judiciary subcommittee on the constitution.
Hatch said the amendment will go before the full committee in late January and should get to the Senate floor by early spring. Action on the human life bill, he said, will be delayed until the amendment is passed or defeated.
In addition to Hatch, the amendment was supported by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), and Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.). Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) stalked out of the hearing room without voting after complaining that Hatch had forced a vote only an hour after completing hearings.
"We are telling the public that it is perfectly free to advise the Senate on the wisdom of adopting one constitutional amendment or another, but that the Senate is perfectly free not to listen," Leahy said.
Constitutional amendments must be approved by two-thirds of each house of Congress and ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.
The Hatch amendment gives Congress and states "the concurrent power to restrict and prohibit abortion." State laws that were more restrictive than national laws would govern.
Groups supporting legalized abortion promptly condemned the amendment. Judith Widdicomb, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said it "invites every state legislature to join Congress in using the private matter of abortion as a political football."
"This is a tragic example of political expediency winning out over common sense and public opinion," said Faye Wattleton, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.