WASHINGTON – President Bush signed a bill Wednesday enacting a ban on partial-birth abortions (search), but the legislation was immediately challenged by a federal judge.
"For years, a terrible form of violence has been directed at children inches at birth while the law looked away. Today, at last the American people and our government have confronted the violence and come to the defense of the innocent child," Bush said in a bill-signing ceremony at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center a few blocks from the White House.
The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 makes it illegal for doctors to take overt action to abort a late-term fetus — one in its second or third trimester — by bringing the baby's body out of the birth canal, then puncturing the skull and sucking out the brain. The bill makes no exemption for a woman whose health is at risk by carrying the pregnancy to term, nor does it take into account ailments or deformities the child may suffer in life.
The bill signing, which follows a seven-year odyssey that saw Republicans pass the bill twice only to have President Clinton veto it both times, was meant to put the measure into effect beginning Thursday. But a district court judge in Nebraska imposed a temporary injunction on the law within one hour of the president's signing it.
Bush said he would not bow to pressure from the courts.
"The facts about partial-birth abortion are troubling and tragic and no lawyer's brief can make them see otherwise," Bush said. "The executive branch will vigorously defend this law by any who would try to overturn it in the courts."
The Supreme Court ruled three years ago that a Nebraska state law banning partial-birth abortion was unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf said the federal law's lack of an exception to protect a woman's health struck him as untenable. He cited a Supreme Court ruling three years ago that found a Nebraska state law banning partial-birth abortion unconstitutional because the law's language was too broad and could impose restrictions on certain types of abortion that have been legally in use for 30 years.
"While it is also true that Congress found that a health exception is not needed, it is, at the very least, problematic whether I should defer to such a conclusion when the Supreme Court has found otherwise," Kopf said.
The case in Nebraska was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights (search) as well as the doctor who won the earlier Supreme Court case.
The Department of Justice responded that it was disappointed with the judge's decision.
"The Justice Department vigorously opposed the injunction and will continue to devote all resources necessary to defend the law prohibiting partial birth abortions," said a Deparment release.
Other suits were also under consideration. Planned Parenthood (search) filed a suit that was being heard in San Francisco on Thursday. A federal court in New York was hearing another suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (search) on behalf of the National Abortion Federation.
"Misinformation has paved the way for passage of this bill from the beginning," Gregory T. Nojeim, associate director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said in a written statement. "Anti-choice lawmakers have used inaccurate and inflammatory rhetoric to hide the fact that this ban will prohibit safe abortion procedures used well before fetal viability, including the procedure used for 90 percent of abortions after the first trimester."
"The abortion lobby couldn't win in Congress, so they're taking the case to court in hopes that an activist judge somewhere will overthrow the will of the people. If judges remain impartial and true to the Constitution, the ban will stand," said Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women of America (search), the nation's largest public policy women's organization
Before the bill signing, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan argued that the procedure was not just unsettling to pro-life lawmakers. The Senate voted 64-34 to ban partial-birth abortions, while the House passed the same measure by 281-142.
"This legislation enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support," McClellan said. "Partial-birth abortion is an abhorrent procedure."
Bush said last week that the procedure is particularly grotesque because of the manner in which the fetus is killed. He added that the ban was one practical step toward reducing the number of abortions in America and building "a culture of life." At the time, however, the president acknowledged that the country is not ready yet for a ban on abortion altogether.
Doctors perform about 2,200 partial-birth abortions every year. Defenders of the procedure say it is only used in extreme circumstances.
Abortion rights groups say demanding the mother's life be threatened and not just her health is too restrictive, and that the language in the bill criminalizes several relatively safe and common abortion procedures.
But critics argue that it's too easy to find a doctor willing to claim that a woman's physical or mental health is at risk even during normal pregnancies.
Supporters say that by signing the bill into law, Bush is finally delivering on a promise to one of his core constituencies: religious conservatives who say life begins at conception.
Pro-choice groups are planning to use the issue against the president in next year's re-election campaign. Already, NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation (search) began airing ads saying Bush is seeking to erode doctor-patient privacy rights and turn over a woman's right to choose to end her pregnancy. The organization is spending nearly $500,000 to air ads in Washington, as well as Des Moines, Iowa, and Manchester, N.H., which are both sites of key early voting in next year's presidential contest.
Activists, organized by the National Organization for Women (search), were planning a protest outside the building where Bush was to sign the bill.
"We won't stand by silently as this administration attempts to erode our rights," NOW President Kim Gandy said.
Fox News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.