WASHINGTON – A bill that would make it a crime to take a pregnant girl across state lines for an abortion without her parents' knowledge passed the Senate Tuesday, but vast differences with the House version stood between the measure and President Bush's desk.
The 65-34 vote gave the Senate's approval to the bill, which would make taking a pregnant girl to another state for the purposes of evading parental notification laws punishable by fines and up to a year in jail.
The girl and her parents would be exempt from prosecution, and the bill contains an exception for abortions performed in this manner that posed a threat to the mother's life.
Struggling to defend their majority this election year, Republican sponsors said the bill supports what a majority of the public believes: that a parent's right to know takes precedence over a young woman's right to have an abortion.
"No parent wants anyone to take their children across state lines or even across the street without their permission," said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "This is a fundamental right, and the Congress is right to uphold it in law."
Bush applauded the Senate action and urged the House and Senate to resolve their differences and send him a bill he said he would sign. "Transporting minors across state lines to bypass parental consent laws regarding abortion undermines state law and jeopardizes the lives of young women," he said in a statement.
Fourteen Democrats and 51 Republicans voted for the bill. Four Republicans voted against it: Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was absent.
Bowing to public support for parental notification and the GOP's 55-44-1 majority, Democrats spent the day trying to carve out an exemption for confidants to whom a girl with abusive parents might turn for help. It was rejected in floor negotiations.
Democrats complained that the measure was the latest in a series of bills designed chiefly to energize the GOP's base of conservative voters.
"Congress ought to have higher priorities than turning grandparents into criminals," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Significant differences exist between the Senate bill and a measure passed by the House last year.
Unlike the Senate bill, the House measure sets out a national parental notification law. It would require a physician who knowingly performs or induces an abortion on a minor who is a resident of another state to provide notice of at least 24 hours to a parent of the minor before ending the pregnancy.
Procedural hurdles also stood in the way. Following the vote, Democrats prevented Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., from appointing Senate negotiators to help bridge the differences with the House version. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., objected to the conferees' appointment on the grounds that the bill had not been considered by a committee and that negotiations were premature.
"I hope this is not a sign that they're going to try to obstruct this bill," Frist said.
Polls suggest there is widespread public backing for the bill, with almost three-quarters of respondents saying a parent has the right to give consent before a child under 18 has an abortion.
States that do not have parental notification or consent laws are Washington, Oregon, New York, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut. The District of Columbia also does not have such laws.
No one knows how many girls get abortions in this way, or who helps them. But Democrats say the policy would be dangerous to pregnant teens who have abusive or neglectful parents by discouraging other people from helping them.
"We're going to sacrifice a lot of girls' lives," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., countered that opponents "want to strip the overwhelming majority of good parents their rightful role and responsibility because of the misbehavior of a few." He pointed out that the judicial bypass provision would help pregnant teens with abusive parents get around the law.
A last-minute deal by Ensign and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., would cut off the ability of men who impregnate their daughters from taking them out of state for abortions and from suing those who help get the procedure in other states.
During floor negotiations with Boxer, Ensign rejected a proposal by Feinstein to protect from prosecution such confidants as grandparents, clergy and others to whom a girl might turn for help.
Another, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., would have encouraged the federal government to provide money for more sex education. That bill failed earlier in the day, 48-51.
"If we do nothing about teen pregnancy yet pass this punitive bill, then it proves that this (bill) is only a political charade and not a serious effort to combat the problem," Lautenberg said.
Abstinence is the best way to prevent teenage pregnancy, responded Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
"How many people really think it's in the best interest of young people to be sexually active outside of marriage? Does anything positive ever come from that?" Coburn asked.
The bills are S. 403 and H.R. 748.