May 19, 1997

Influential medical group backs partial birth ban

By Joanne Kenen WASHINGTON - The influential American Medical Association Monday threw its support behind a proposed ban on ''partial birth'' abortion on the eve of the Senate vote on the controversial and emotional measure.

Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who is the sponsor of the Senate bill, announced the AMA endorsement of a slighly modified version of his bill. He said he hoped it would sway the six to eight senators who by his count are still undecided. A vote is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Santorum said he has 62 ``solid'' votes, more than enough to pass the measure. But he needs 67 to override a presidential veto. The measure passed the House by a veto-proof majority.

President Clinton vetoed an identical bill last year and said he will do so again this year because it does not make exceptions to preserve the health of the pregnant woman. The Santorum bill makes exceptions only if her life is endangered.

White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn said after the AMA decision, ``The president's views on this are well known. He thinks that the health exception is necessary to help only a few women and he can't abandon those few women.''

She noted that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has opposed the ban, saying there can be rare health situations when it is the best medical option.

If enacted into law, this would be the first time a specific abortion procedure has been banned since the 1973 Roe versus Wade Supreme Court decision upholding the right to abortion.

Santorum at a news conference distributed a letter confirming the AMA endorsement, and the AMA later released a statement from its board chairwoman Dr. Nancy Dickey, saying partial birth ``is a procedure which is never the only appropriate procedure and has no history in peer reviewed medical literature or in accepted medical practice.''

The AMA has been technically neutral on abortion in the past, saying it is a matter between doctor and patient. An AMA spokeswoman said this is the first time the organization has taken a position on an abortion bill.

The unusual AMA move is likely to weigh on the debate, but whether it would win over five more votes in less than 24 hours before Senate acts on the measure was not immediately clear.

Among the undecided senators is Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. He has a strong abortion rights voting record but has said he is very troubled by partial birth abortions.

Last week, Daschle tried and failed to win support for an alternative to the partial birth ban that would have outlawed all abortions, by any surgical method, after a fetus is viable and can survive outside the uterus. That bill had health exemptions that Santorum and his allies said were unnecessary.

To win AMA backing, Santorum made some changes to satisfy the doctors but said they did not substantially alter his bill. He added language that would clarify that the ban would apply to intentional abortions, not emergency procedures resorted to during a delivery that, in his words ``turned tragic.''

The new language also provides for a physician accused of violating the ban to have a State Medical Board review his or her actions before a criminal trial.

Partial birth, also known as intact dilation and extraction, involves the partial extraction of the fetus feet-first, the subsequent suctioning out of the fetal brain and the removal of the fetus.

``The president might have to look very long and hard about whether he wants to veto this,'' Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who backs the ban on the procedure, said earlier Monday.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, welcomed the AMA backing and said the changes ``do not weaken the thrust of the bill.''

Gloria Feldt, executive director of Planned Parenthood Federation, said in a telephone interview that she did not know how much weight the AMA would have among undecided senators but added, ``It doesn't matter whose backing it has, the bill is wrong.''

``It ignores women's health, it is bad for women, it ignores the constitution,'' she said.