May 15, 1997

Senate weighs alternatives to ``partial birth'' ban

By Joanne Kenen WASHINGTON - The Senate Thursday took up alternatives to a ``partial birth'' abortion ban that would restrict late-term abortions but not eliminate them.

The Senate easily defeated one proposal, by a 72-28 vote, that would limit late-term abortions but made exceptions to ''avert serious adverse health'' problems for a woman. The proposal was sponsored by Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, but the health language was too broadly worded even for some senators who generally back abortion rights.

An alternative offered by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota had a more narrowly worded health exemption and was likely to face a much closer vote Thursday night.

Daschle's bill said doctors could only do a late-term abortion if they had no alternative. Even if the pregnancy was endangering a woman, they would have to deliver the baby early if that was an alternative.

Except in those health cases, it would bar all abortions, by partial birth or other methods, after a fetus is viable or capable of surviving outside the uterus.

``It shall be unlawful for a physician to abort a viable fetus unless the physician certifies that the continuation of the pregnancy would threaten the mother's life or risk grievous injury to her physical health,'' the bill said.

Opponents of the alternative bills, led by Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, backed a ban on partial birth abortion, also known as dilation and evacuation, before or after viability.

Santorum and other critics of Daschle said his bill was riddled with loopholes. ``There would not be one abortion banned in this country,'' Santorum said.

The procedure involves the partial extraction of the fetus feet-first, the subsequent suctioning out of the fetal brain and the removal of the fetus.

If the Daschle alternative fails, Santorum will have enough votes to pass his bill but he acknowledged he is unlikely to get the 67 votes needed to override the veto that President Clinton promised. Clinton vetoed an identical bill in 1996, saying it did not protect the health of a woman.

Santorum and his allies would allow partial birth to save a life but not for health, and they cited medical experts saying the procedure was never needed for health reasons. ``What health reason of the mother requires you to kill this baby?'' asked Santorum.

The debate was further complicated because both sides were able to summon respected medical authorities whom they say validate their positions. And sometimes they both seized on the same piece of medical data as supportive of their position.

There was also a dispute about how many partial birth procedures are performed each year in the United States, complicated by the admission earlier this year of one abortion rights activist that he had intentionally played down the statistics. Santorum this week cited on the Senate floor an estimate of 5,000 a year, including many in the fifth and sixth month.