WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday voted to ban the practice that critics call partial birth abortion, sending President Bush a measure that supporters and foes alike said could alter the future of U.S. abortion rights. A court challenge is certain.
Years in the making, the bill imposes the most far-reaching limits on abortion since the Supreme Court in 1973 confirmed a woman’s right to end a pregnancy.
“This is an enormous day. It’s been a long seven-year fight about the issue of partial birth abortion,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. He was a leader of the drive to end abortions, generally carried out in the second or third trimester, in which a fetus is partially delivered before being killed.
“This is indeed a historic day,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., lead opponent of the legislation, “because for the first time in history, Congress is banning a medical procedure that is considered medically necessary by physicians.”
The 64-34 vote came three weeks after the House passed the same measure by 281-142.
Bush had urged Congress to pass the ban, which Republicans had pursued since the GOP captured the House in 1995, and the president had said he would sign it into law.
But opponents said the first federal ban on abortion since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was unconstitutional and, like similar state laws, would be struck down.
The president, said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., “will become the first United States president to criminalize a safe medical procedure.” Doctors who violate the ban would be subject to prison terms of up to two years.
Opponents of the legislation argued that, as defined in the bill, it could apply to several safe and common procedures, and that the real goal of the legislation was to erode overall abortion rights.
A key focus will be the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in 2000 that a similar Nebraska law was unconstitutional because the definition of the practice was too vague — making it unclear to doctors what procedures were illegal — and didn’t have an exception concerning risks to the health of the mother to go along with an exception for when the life of the mother was in danger.