The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow Congress and each state to restrict abortion.
The vote was 10 to 7, but several committee members cautioned that they were voting for the amendment only to shift the controversial issue to the Senate floor.
The amendment, proposed by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), would have the effect of overturning the 1973 Supreme Court decision that held that in the earlier part of a pregnancy a woman has a right to abortion.
It would allow Congress to pass a law restricting abortions nationally. States then would be free to pass more restrictive laws if they chose, but not less restrictive.
To become part of the Constitution the amendment would have to be approved by two-thirds of both House and Senate, then three-quarters of the state legislatures.
The anti-abortion movement has been split sharply over the Hatch amendment, partly because of the cumbersomeness and uncertainty of this ratification procedure and partly on grounds that it does not really ban abortions and might simply shift the abortion traffic to states with liberal laws.
A rival anti-abortion bill, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), is already on the Senate calendar. It simply redefines life, for the purpose of federal law, as beginning at conception, thereby providing a fetus with the same protections as an infant.
It also would limit the power of federal courts to rule in abortion cases. This bill would require only majority votes in both houses, but some say it would then be found unconstitutional by the courts.
In any case prospects for enactment of anti-abortion legislation are uncertain this year. The issue is volatile, it is an election year, and whatever the Senate approved would go to the House Judiciary Committee, where it would be quite likely to be shelved.
Congress has in the past attached numerous anti-abortion riders to appropriations bills, restricting federal financing of abortions, but not to restrict them altogether, as the Judiciary Committee voted to do yesterday.
Anti-abortion groups were thus quick to claim victory, their opponents to denounce the outcome.
Dr. J.C. Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee, called the vote "a milestone in the campaign to restore legal protection to the most defenseless members of the human family," and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops called it "an auspicious event for the cause of the unborn."
But Frances Kissling, executive director of Catholics for Free Choice, condemned it, saying "it does not reflect mainstream Catholic opinion," and Nanette Flakenberg of the National Abortion Rights Action League said, "Sen. Hatch and his right-wing cronies are one step closer to their goal of banning abortions by throwing debate on abortion policy into the political arena both in state capitols and the Congress."
However, several senators who voted for the amendment expressed doubts about it and said they would support amendments on the floor. Some said they would move to have abortions banned entirely.
Judiciary Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) said he would move to amend it to leave the abortion question up to the states without a federal standard.
Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), who also favors leaving the question to the states, said that if the Senate went along with Hatch's double standard of state and federal laws, "I think we've effectively forever saddled ourselves with the abortion issue at the federal level . . . . This issue will continue to come back here again and again and again."
But Hatch argued that without the minimum federal standards there would be a risk of "abortion meccas" springing up in certain liberal states around the country.
The vote was mostly along party lines, with Republicans Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) voting with the Democrats against the Hatch amendment and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) voting with the Republicans in favor.
In defending his vote, Biden noted that he is a Roman Catholic, and said it was "the single most difficult vote I've cast as a U.S. senator . . . . I'm probably a victim, or a product, however you want to phrase it, of my background."