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House Passes Controversial Abortion Bill by Veto-Proof Margin

For the seventh time in five years, the House on April 5 passed, 287-141, a controversial abortion-related bill known as the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (H.R. 3660). Although Congress has twice sent the President similar bills, they were vetoed in 1996 and 1997. Both times the House voted to override the veto, while the Senate fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority. Late last year, the Senate approved, 63-47, a similar measure (S. 1692). The President has already indicated that he will veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

H.R. 3660 would ban an abortion procedure bill supporters refer to as “partial-birth” abortion. The bill would impose fines and/or up to two years in jail for any physician who knowingly performs a “partial-birth” abortion. The bill would provide an exception if an abortion was necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman. The bill also would provide a woman’s husband and her parents with civil relief and would allow a physician to seek a hearing before the State Medical Board on the appropriateness of his/her action.

The measure had been scheduled for mark-up by the House Judiciary Committee, but Committee Chair Henry Hyde (R-IL) agreed to discharge the bill from committee consideration to allow it to proceed to the House floor. H.R. 3660 was brought to the floor under a closed rule, which prohibited amendments and angered Democrats. “We wait 15 months, no hearings, no markup in subcommittee, no markup in full committee, no amendments allowed to be offered on the House floor. Why? Because the sponsors of this legislation do not want us to offer a real proposal that could get signed into law and pass constitutional muster,” argued Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).

Rep. Charles Canady (R-FL), the bill’s sponsor, argued that the proposed substitute “would not prohibit any abortion, if in the judgment of the attending physician, the abortion is necessary to avert serious health consequences to the woman….That gives abortionists unfettered discretion to decide whether the procedure would be performed or not.”

The substitute amendment would have resembled a bill (H.R. 2149), sponsored by Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and James Greenwood (R-PA), that would prohibit all post-viability abortions. The substitute would have required an attending physician to certify that the abortion was necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman or to avert serious adverse health consequences.

During three hours of emotional debate, bill opponents argued that bill supporters were turning the issue into a political one by timing floor action to coincide with the upcoming elections. “No, this is all about politics. It is not about saving lives. It is about winning hearts. It is about saving seats in Congress. It is about winning seats in Congress. It is not about making law,” argued Rep. Greenwood.

Rep. Hyde countered, “This debate is not about religious doctrine or even about policy options. It is a debate about our understanding of human dignity….We cannot hide from the ugly reality of partial-birth infanticide.”

Prior to approving the measure, the House defeated, 140-289, a motion to recommit offered by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). The motion would have provided an exception “to avert serious adverse long-term physical health consequences to the mother.” Saying that the motion to recommit was a futile attempt to “make the bill less damaging,” Rep. Frank stated, “If the intention was in fact to minimize this procedure, to have it occur only when it was medically necessary, the Hoyer-Greenwood amendment would have been made in order and would have passed. Failing that, this amendment at least reduces the harm.”

Rep. Canady countered that the amendment “would simply divert us from what we should be focusing on, and that is the horror of partial-birth abortion,” adding: “We have seen attempt after attempt to change the subject, to cloud the issue, to confuse the American people, to mislead the Members of this House.”

Currently, 31 states have enacted bans on “partial-birth abortion.” Courts have declared the bans unconstitutional and have either wholly or partially enjoined them in 20 of those states. In those cases, courts have ruled that the bans are unconstitutional because they pose an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose, do not include an adequate exception for a woman’s health, and do not adequately define the procedure. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case involving the Nebraska bill later this month, with a ruling on its constitutionality due in June.

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