An eight-year struggle over legislation to ban what critics call "partial birth" abortions appeared to be nearing a climax yesterday as the Senate took up the bill and its advocates claimed the votes to pass it, along with a president who will sign it.
"I think the odds are very good" that the measure will be passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Bush, said Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who, with Bush and other Republican leaders, has made the measure a top priority.
Congress has been fighting over the issue since 1995. It twice passed a ban, but President Bill Clinton vetoed it. The House overrode the vetoes, but the Senate did not. Congress appeared ready to pass the ban again in 2000 but stopped short after the Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law that was similar in many respects to the proposed congressional ban. The House passed a revamped ban last year, but the Senate, then in Democratic hands, did not take it up.
The bill's supporters say they have rewritten it to address objections raised by the Supreme Court. But opponents contend it still has the same constitutional flaws that led the court to strike down the Nebraska law and vow to challenge the legislation in court if it becomes law.
In its latest version, the bill defines the procedure as one in which a fetus is partially delivered alive and a doctor performs "an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus." The ban would apply when the "entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."
Previous debates have involved grisly descriptions of the procedure (from ban advocates) and wrenching tales of reasons why women employed it (from ban opponents). Comments yesterday from the opposing camps indicated this debate may be little different.
Supporters of the ban have at least 60 votes, enough to deter a filibuster by its foes, said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), chief sponsor of the bill. But he said he thought the vote may be "very close" on a proposal by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to drop Santorum's language in favor of prohibiting abortions of viable fetuses unless two physicians certify that continued pregnancy threatens a woman's life or "grievous injury" to her physical health.
The Santorum bill provides an exemption from the ban in cases where the partial birth procedure is necessary to save a woman's life. But it does not provide an exemption to protect her health, which abortion rights advocates say is necessary to pass constitutional muster. Instead, the bill asserts that partial birth abortions are never necessary to preserve a woman's health.