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Senate Again Approves Ban On ‘Partial-Birth’ Abortions

By Helen Dewar

The Senate Thursday again approved legislation to ban what critics call “partial birth” abortions but fell narrowly short of the two-thirds majority that would be required to override a promised veto by President Clinton.

In what officials said was probably the Senate’s first vote ever on the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortions, the Senate also voted 51 to 47 to go on record endorsing the Roe vs. Wade decision as “an important constitutional right” that should not be overturned.

Forty-five of the Senate’s 54 Republicans voted against the proposal sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and supported by all but two Democrats. Democrats used this non-binding vote to claim that Republicans were using the partial-birth abortion issue as a smokescreen to mask an assault on abortion rights of all kinds and predicted it would be a big issue in next year’s elections.

Republicans denied the charge and described Harkin’s proposal as a “distraction” aimed at diverting attention from “partial birth” abortions. But it was clear that, just as Republicans have used the vote on the bill against Democrats and will do so again, Democrats now intend to use the Roe vs. Wade vote against Republicans.

The vote on the “partial birth” abortion bill was 63 to 34, with 49 Republicans and 14 Democrats supporting it and 31 Democrats and three Republicans opposing it. Counting absentees, the bill’s backers registered a net gain of one vote since it came up for a vote last year but were still at least one and probably two votes short of the 67 needed to assure a veto override. Among those who did not vote Thursday is Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) who has previously voted against the measure.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) was the only Washington area senator to vote for the bill although he supported the resolution backing Roe vs. Wade.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) would ban a procedure, known medically as intact dilation and extraction, under which a physician pulls the fetus out of the birth canal feet first, then punctures the head, removes the brain and collapses the skull. The fetus is then removed vaginally.

It would make it a felony punishable by a fine and up to two years in prison for a physician to employ the procedure unless it is “necessary to save the life of a mother whose life is endangered by physical disorder, illness or injury.” The woman would not be subject to prosecution.

Supporters of the bill argued it was necessary to prevent “infanticide... wanton destruction of the most vulnerable in our society,” as Santorum put it. Foes charged it was unconstitutional, dangerous to women, so loosely drawn it could threaten many abortions by other procedures, and politically inspired.