Opponents of abortion rights won the first of what they hope will be a string of congressional victories when the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to outlaw a controversial form of late-term abortion.
The bill, banning what abortion foes call partial-birth abortions, is expected to sail through the House of Representatives, as it has in the past. President Bush has said he will sign it into law.
"Partial-birth abortion is an abhorrent procedure that offends human dignity, and I commend the Senate for passing legislation to ban it," Bush said. "Today's action is an important step toward building a culture of life in America."
Abortion rights advocates predicted the law would be declared unconstitutional because it does not permit exceptions to protect the health of a pregnant woman. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar Nebraska law three years ago.
"Given that they didn't put a comprehensive health exception in this, it's dead on arrival," said David Garrow, a professor at Emory University's law school and author of Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade. "This will be enjoined by some federal judge literally the very same day the president signs it."
Even the bill's sponsor, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said he didn't expect the measure to reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States because doctors could use other procedures.
"By the actual banning of the procedure itself, I don't think we're stopping any more abortions," Santorum said.
But the Senate vote banning the rarely used procedure is at least as important for its symbolism and politics as for its medical effect.
The 64-33 vote marks the first abortion-related tally since Republicans took control of the Senate this year and shows the strength of a movement left out in the cold during the eight years that President Bill Clinton was in office. Clinton twice vetoed similar legislation.
Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, both Democrats, voted against the measure.
The Senate bill would ban doctors from partially delivering a fetus and then committing an "overt act" to kill it. A recent survey conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a think tank quoted by both sides in the debate, found 2,200 partial-birth abortions were performed in the United States in 2000.
However, abortion rights advocates contend the Santorum bill was vague enough to outlaw other forms of abortions as well, particularly those performed in the second trimester.
"One of the most deceptive aspects of this bill is that the sponsors pretend it is about late-term abortions and a specific late-term abortion procedure," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which argued the case against Nebraska's law. She said the bill should have specified that it sought to protect fetuses that would be viable outside the womb, but the Senate rejected amendments that would have done that.
Abortion opponents in Congress put the measure forward first as their best shot this year. Waiting in the wings are bills that would make it a crime to take minors across state lines for abortions in order to avoid parental-notification laws; prevent federal, state and local governments from withholding money from hospitals that don't provide abortions; and make it a crime to injure a fetus during the commission of another crime.
The Senate voted 52-46 Wednesday to endorse a nonbinding resolution supporting the Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling that established abortion rights in 1973. Abortion opponents said Thursday they expect the resolution to be stripped from the partial-birth legislation in the House of Representatives.