Anti-abortion forces in the House once again pushed through a ban on a specific abortion procedure despite past legislative failures, court challenges and an uncertain future in the Senate.
The bill to ban what opponents call partial-birth abortion, taken up on an almost annual basis since Republicans gained control of the House in 1995, passed 274-151.
President Clinton vetoed the legislation twice, in 1996 and 1997, but this time supporters of the ban have the president on their side. The White House said in a statement it strongly supports the bill, saying it is "morally imperative and constitutionally permissible to prohibit this very abhorrent form of abortion."
First, though, it must be considered by the Democratic-controlled Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he didn't know if that would happen before this session of Congress ends. "We have so many things on the plate that we're going to have to make some decisions about what merits the highest priority."
This year's vote comes two years after the Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, struck down a Nebraska law banning the abortion technique, saying that the definition of the procedure was too vague and violated women's constitutional rights by imposing an "undue burden" on women. The law, like the House bill, made an exception to the ban when a woman's life was in danger but not to protect the health of a mother.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, chief sponsor of the bill, argued that it met constitutional muster because it provided a more precise definition of the procedure. He said congressional findings would prove that the procedure is never necessary to protect the health of the mother, removing that legal objection to the bill.
Clinton vetoed the bill because it lacked a provision to allow this procedure when other methods to end a pregnancy might seriously hurt the health of the woman or limit her ability to reproduce in the future.
The procedure involves the partial delivery of an intact living fetus until some portion of the fetus is outside the body of the mother, at which point the fetus is killed, often by puncturing the head. Supporters of the ban say the procedure is relatively common and at times takes place in the fifth or sixth month of a pregnancy. Those on the other side say the procedure is rare and generally used in the third term of a pregnancy when the health or life of the mother is in danger.
Chabot said the health exception was both unneeded and unwarranted because it gives the doctor "unfettered discretion" to say that a woman's health was at risk.
Doctors who violate the ban would be subject to fines or a maximum of two years imprisonment.
"Partial-birth abortion is never medically necessary to preserve a woman's health, poses serious risks to women's health and, in fact, is below the requisite standard of medical care," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
But Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the bill was "nothing more than a cruel ploy to prevent women from obtaining the safest and best medical care from their doctors." Other opponents said the ban on the procedure would not prevent one abortion and was primarily an election-year political gesture.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said it was a "contrived, cynical charade," and complained that the GOP leadership would not permit him and Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Pa., from offering an alternative that would ban all late-term abortions, regardless of the procedure used, with health and life exceptions.
The bill is H.R. 4965.