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Lawmakers Try Again to Ban Abortion Procedure

Wed Jun 19, 2002

By Todd Zwillich

WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) - Pro-life US lawmakers have reintroduced legislation to ban the controversial procedure they call "partial birth abortion," hoping to skirt a Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar law 2 years ago.

The bill specifically bans any procedure in which a physician delivers a living fetus to the point where the full head is outside the mother's body and then "performs the overt act, other than completion of delivery, that kills the partially delivered living fetus."

The new bill calls for up to a 2-year prison term and unspecified fines for any doctor who performs the procedure. It makes an exception for cases in which the procedure is performed to protect the life of the mother, but not her health.

The bill also gives the partner and parents of any pregnant woman who undergoes the procedure the right to sue for pain and suffering and other damages.

The procedure, though relatively rare, has been a flash point in the abortion debate since the early 1990s.

"This is not a choice issue. This is a life and death issue for an innocent child," said Rep. James Barchia of Michigan, the bill's leading Democratic co-sponsor.

Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, called the procedure "barbaric" and said it was tantamount to child abuse.

Congress passed similar bans three times during the 1990s. Two were vetoed by President Bill Clinton, who opposed them because they did not contain exceptions for procedures performed to protect the health of the mother.

Twenty-seven states already have laws banning the procedure. The Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law with a 5-4 decision in June 2000, saying that it unfairly impeded a woman's right to abortions that may be necessary to protect her health.

That ruling hampered pro-life lawmakers who up to that point had refused to make an exception to protect a mother's life.

Supporters of the new ban said that they expect to get around the ruling by introducing new evidence into the bill that they say will show the procedure never meets the definition of medical necessity.

"Partial birth abortion is an inhumane procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited," said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), the bill's author. "We believe that this partial birth abortion ban should withstand a constitutional challenge."

The bill would give doctors accused of performing illegal abortions the right to a hearing before their state medical board to determine if the procedure was needed to save the mother's life.

Pro-life groups threw their support behind the bill. The National Right to Life Committee circulated a letter Wednesday to all House members urging them to support the total ban.

A competing measure introduced in the House last year would outlaw any abortion of a "viable" fetus but makes exceptions for abortions required to protect the health or life of the mother.

Kate Michelman, president of the pro-choice National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), said in an interview that the bill's authors were trying "to politicize in an election year the debate about abortion.

"The Supreme Court has spoken on this issue. The law is unconstitutional in that it does not make an exception to protect women's health," Michelman said.

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