May 15, 1997

Senate defeats Democratic bills on late-term abortion

By Joanne Kenen WASHINGTON - The Senate Thursday defeated two Democratic-sponsored bills on late-term abortions, paving the way for a vote to ban the controversial procedure known as ''partial birth'' abortion.

A vote is likely early next week on a bill sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum that would ban ``partial birth'' procedures at any point in pregnancy, except to save the life of the mother.

President Clinton vetoed an identical bill last year and has vowed to veto this one because it does not exempt women with serious health risks during pregnancy. Santorum is about five votes short of the crucial 67 he would need to override a presidential veto.

The two alternative measures defeated Thursday, one sponsored by Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle and one by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, had health exemptions.

Those two bills would have outlawed all late-term abortions, including partial birth, after a fetus is viable, or able to survive outside the uterus. They would not have banned partial birth, also known as dilation and extraction, prior to viability. That procedure can be done in the fifth and sixth months.

The Feinstein measure was defeated 72-28. Daschle tried to frame his measure, which had narrower health languaage, as an alternative that would prevent elective late-term abortions and could be embraced by senators on both sides of the abortion divide. But he lost, 64-36.

Forty-one states already restrict late-term abortions, but this would be the first federal ban on a specific abortion procedure since the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision upholding a woman's right to abortion. Congress has limited the use of public funds for abortions for poor women.

Critics of Santorum's bill said it is unconstitutional because Roe protects abortion before viability and this bill would apply to earlier procedures.

Several senators noted that the definition of viability has changed in the 24 years since Roe, contributing to growing public discomfort with late-term abortions. Tiny premature babies now have a chance at surviving and even thriving with neonatal technology unimaginable in the 1970s.

Similarly, the field of prenatal testing and diagnosis is rapidly changing, and couples will be able to learn earlier in pregnancy about possible serious genetic or congenital problems with a fetus. Medical ethicists expect that to shape the public perception of abortion as the legislative battles continue in the next few years.

Daschle said his proposal protected fetuses from all surgical abortions after viability, without trodding on the constitutionally protected right to abortion earlier in pregnancy. The Santorum bill, he said, would still allow other forms of late-term abortions.

Santorum and other critics said the health exemption was a giant loophole, that the procedure was never needed for health reasons. They said it would not stop a single abortion.

``No health exception is necessary ... After viability, there is no reason to kill the baby to protect the life of the mother. Never, never, never,'' said Santorum.

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.

``It is brutal, inhumane and deeply offensive,'' said Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and physician. ``It must and should be banned.''

The National Right to Life Committee applauded the Senate's rejection of Daschle's bill, calling his proposal a ``phony ban.'' ``The Daschle amendment was a political gimmick that would have allowed partial-birth abortion on demand,'' NRL said in a written statement.

There has also been a continuing controversy 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 numbers. Santorum this week cited an estimate of 5,000 a year, including many in the fifth and sixth months.