Senate votes against abortion restrictions

WASHINGTON (AP) — After a wrenching debate, the Republican-controlled Senate Thursday night killed a proposal to curtail late-term abortions that was backed by many Democrats and a late lobbying effort by the Clinton administration.
The vote was 64-36 against a proposal by Democratic Leader Tom Daschle to ban all such abortions except when continuing the pregnancy would threaten a mother’s life or risk “grievous injury” to her health.
The vote cleared the way for likely final passage next week of GOP-drafted legislation to ban so-called “partial birth” abortions except in cases in which a woman’s life is in jeopardy. President Clinton vetoed an identical measure last year and has threatened to do so again.
Daschle said he was found “partial birth” abortions “absolutely abhorrent,” yet was hoping for a “completely different approach” to the issue before the Senate that could pass constitutional muster.
After the point at which a fetus is able to survive outside the womb, he said, “we don’t want to simply abolish one procedure, we want to abolish them all.”
Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the GOP point man on the issue, countered that Daschle’s proposal amounted to a “very broad loophole and will not restrict abortion.” He said it would leave doctors in an unchallenged position of deciding when the risk to a woman’s health justified an abortion.
“If this bill were to become law there would not be one less abortion performed in this country and there would not be one abortion banned in this country,” he asserted.
Earlier, lawmakers brushed aside a proposal rejecting a ban that provided for greater exceptions than did Daschle’s, including cases in which a woman’s life was threatened or she would be confronted with “serious adverse health consequences.” The vote against that version was 72-28.
That proposal was backed by some of the Senate’s most ardent abortion rights supporters, including California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats. Abortion foes said the exceptions were so broad the measure would do little to curb abortions after viability, the point at which a fetus could live outside the womb.
The House has already passed the GOP “partial birth” measure by more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. Senate Republicans are hoping they can do likewise when the roll is called next Tuesday.
The “partial birth” procedure, more complicated than first-trimester abortions, involves partially extracting a fetus, legs first, through the birth canal, cutting an incision in the barely visible skull base and then draining the skull so the head can fit through the birth canal.
Daschle’s measure would have banned all types of abortions after a fetus had reached viability — roughly 23 weeks of gestation –rather than the single procedure to be barred under the GOP measure.
But such late-term abortions would be allowed in cases in which a mother’s life was endangered or there was a risk of “grievous injury to her health” if she carried the fetus to term. Doctors would have been required to certify under penalty of perjury that they had not violated the restrictions.
Daschle’s proposal also would apply only in states that do not have restrictions of their own on late-term abortions.
“We are not going to satisfy the hard-core pro-choice or the hard-core pro-life people,” the South Dakota lawmaker told reporters a few hours before the vote.
Nor did he. Voting for his proposal were 34 Democrats and two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Opposed were 53 Republicans and 11 Democrats. The Democratic opponents were divided evenly between senators who generally favor abortion rights and those who want to restrict abortions.
But Daschle’s proposal did have Clinton’s backing, and administration and congressional officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the president, Vice President Al Gore and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala were telephoning wavering senators on behalf of it.