WASHINGTON – Moving the restriction a crucial step closer to President Bush (search)'s signature, the House voted 282-139 Wednesday to ban a procedure that abortion foes call "partial birth" abortion (search ).
With the vote, Congress was on the verge of ending a practice that Rep. Steve Chabot said was "truly a national tragedy."
President Bush hailed passage of the legislation he said "will help build a culture of life in America. I urge Congress to quickly resolve any differences and send me the final bill as soon as possible so that I can sign it into law."
Abortion rights groups said they would challenge the ban in court as soon as it becomes law, thrusting the issue of the ban's constitutionality toward a divided Supreme Court (search).
The ban would be one of the most significant restrictions on abortion since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision recognizing abortion rights. Ken Connor, president of the anti-abortion Family Research Council, said passage was indicative of "a tide that is running against Roe v. Wade, which will eventually be dismantled."
Bush -- unlike former President Clinton, who twice vetoed partial birth abortion bans -- had urged Congress in his State of the Union address in January to give him a bill he could sign.
The administration strongly believes the bill "is both morally imperative and constitutionally permissible," the White House said in a statement.
The Senate passed a nearly identical bill in March, but differences with the House must still be ironed out before the legislation is sent to the president. Likely to be deleted: nonbinding language added by the Senate in support of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Abortion opponents have pushed the bill since Republicans captured the House in 1995, saying they want to stop a particularly abhorrent means of ending a pregnancy. "Partial birth abortion is a gruesome and inhumane procedure and it is a grave attack against human dignity and justice. This practice must be banned," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., at the opening of the debate.
Under the bill, partial birth abortion is defined as a procedure in which the fetus is killed after 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."
The legislation characterizes the procedure, which typically involves puncturing the fetal skull to bring about death, as "the overt act, other than completion of delivery, that kills the partially delivered living fetus."
Physicians who knowingly perform the procedure would be subject to up to two years in prison.
Opponents of the bill cited a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar Nebraska law as unconstitutional, and said women would still have access to late-term abortions using other procedures.
"Passing an unconstitutional bill will not save one life," said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas.
Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and James Greenwood, R-Pa., offered an alternative that would make it illegal to perform any abortion procedure after the fetus has become viable -- meaning it is able to survive outside the womb -- unless the doctor determines that ending the pregnancy is necessary to preserve a woman's life or protect her from serious adverse health consequences. It was defeated 287-133.
The health exception has been a major sticking point: Clinton, in his two vetoes, cited the lack of an exception for instances in which a woman's health is endangered. The current bill contains an exception when the life of the mother -- but not her health -- is at risk.
Backers of the partial birth ban said the Hoyer-Greenwood health exception would open a major loophole, allowing abortions even when the mental health of the mother is in question.
"It would be impossible for an abortionist to 'violate' a bill that empowers him to perform third-trimester abortions whenever he asserts that they protect mental health," Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee said in a statement.
The Supreme Court, in its 5-4 ruling in the Nebraska case, cited the lack of a health exception in striking the state law down. It also said the law imposed an "undue burden" on women because as written it was unclear what kinds of procedures might be illegal.
Opponents of the bill pointed out that the term "partial birth" is a political invention that appears in no medical textbook. It has been linked to the procedure known as dilation and extraction, although the court said the language could apply to other commonly used methods.
There's also disagreement over how often it is carried out. Abortion rights groups say the procedure may be necessary when the fetus is seriously malformed and cite one study that dilation and extraction comprised one-tenth of 1 percent of the 1.3 million abortions in 2000. Abortion foes say that the figure is far higher and that the procedure is often used in the second trimester when the fetus and mother are healthy.
Some 30 states have passed bans on partial birth abortions although courts have blocked those laws in about 20 states, abortion rights groups said. The federal legislation, if it becomes law, would apply to procedures in all states.
Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the organization would file a suit immediately after Bush signs the bill and would seek an injunction to stop its implementation.
"It still doesn't contain an exception for the health of the woman and it criminalizes doctors trying to provide the best care to their patients," she said.
Talcott Camp of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project said they too would challenge the bill on behalf of the National Abortion Federation, an association of abortion providers and clinics. "I'm confident that the constitutional protections of women's health have not diminished in the past three years," she said.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, the chief sponsor of the House bill, said Tuesday they had tightened the language to meet the court's objections and had accumulated evidence to prove that the procedure was "dangerous to a woman's health, and never medically necessary."
But the deciding factor in any Supreme Court decision could be the court's makeup. Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor, two of the five who voted to strike down the Nebraska law, are considered among the justices most likely to retire in the near future, allowing Bush to nominate a more conservative replacement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.