Legal Battle Looms Over Partial-Birth Abortion Ban

In the biggest win for abortion (search) foes in nearly a decade, President Bush said Wednesday that he would sign newly passed legislation to end partial-birth abortion.

But legal challenges already are in the works.

At least three abortion rights advocates are rushing to court to halt what they said was a dangerous incursion against Roe v. Wade (search), the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

"This is very important legislation that will end an abhorrent practice and continue to build a culture of life in America," the president, traveling in Asia, said in a statement. "I look forward to signing it into law."

With some lawmakers calling the procedure "barbaric" and "morally offensive," the Senate (search) voted 64-34 Tuesday to ban the method of abortion that is normally carried out in the second or third trimester, in which a fetus is partially delivered before being killed. The House approved the legislation this month, and Bush has urged Congress to get it to his desk.

Key to the latest court battle will be a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that a similar Nebraska state law was unconstitutional because the definition of "partial birth" was too vague and left doctors unsure of what practices were illegal. The court said that while legislation provided an exception when the life of the mother was in danger, there were no protections for a woman's health.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. -- a heart surgeon -- told Fox News he's confident the ban will withstand any court challenges.

Calling the procedure "egregious, outlandish and ghoulish," Frist argued it is not something that is medically necessary -- as some Democrats have argued in the case of a woman's health -- and said he is excited that the bill will finally be signed, rather than vetoed, by the president.

The federal bill defines partial-birth abortion as delivery of a fetus "until, in the case of a headfirst presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of the breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered living fetus."

Republicans have been fighting to get such a bill passed since they captured the House in 1995. President Clinton twice vetoed similar bills, arguing that they lacked an exception to protect the health of the mother, and in the first year of the Bush administration a Democratic-controlled Senate stopped its advancement.

In the final Senate vote, 17 Democrats joined 47 Republicans to support the ban. Three Republicans voted against the legislation.

Talcott Camp, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the case could take two to three years to work its way through the courts. The ACLU will represent the National Abortion Federation, an abortion advocacy group, in its lawsuit.

There were arguments about what the procedure encompasses and how frequently it is performed, but opposing sides agreed the legislation was of major consequence.

"Today we have reached a significant victory as we continue to build a more compassionate society and a culture that values every human life," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., the bill's sponsor.

Frist said the ban could save the lives of thousands of soon-to-be-born babies.

But others, like another physician-politician, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, said it is the women who need the procedure whose lives were put at risk by Tuesday's Senate vote.

"As a physician, I am outraged that the Senate has decided it is qualified to practice medicine," said Dean, a former governor of Vermont. He said the legislation "will endanger the lives of countless women."

"This vote is a step backward for women as George Bush's stealth agenda to roll back the right to choose is pushed forward," added another Democratic presidential contender, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. "It is time for a president who will have the courage to stand up to the right-wing assault on the rights of women."

Other opponents decried a bill they said would criminalize a safe medical practice and subject doctors who violate it to up to two years in prison. The bill "for the first time in history bans a medical procedure without making any exception for the health of the woman," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "This is a radical, radical thing that is about to happen here."

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the bill was a clear threat to the future of Roe v. Wade. "I say to the women of America: this is step one," Harkin said.

Santorum argued that supporters had met the constitutional questions by tightening the definition and offering extensive findings that the procedure was never needed to protect the health of the mother.

But the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Gloria Feldt, said the bill remained unconstitutional because it "prevents women, in consultation with their families and trusted doctors, from making decisions about their own health."

Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America said, "I am very happy that President Bush will sign the bill into law. This is a very historic vote for America and it is just a matter of time before the infamous Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, is overturned."

Tony Perkins, president of the anti-abortion Family Research Council, urged Attorney General John Ashcroft to put up a stiff legal defense.

"Given an activist judiciary, the prospects for the ban surviving a court challenge are dim unless the attorney general is ready to pour resources and energy into the fight to defend it," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.