NEWS STORY: Bush Signs `Partial-birth’ Abortion Ban

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c. 2003 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Interrupted by standing ovations and shouts of “amen,” President Bush signed the “partial-birth” abortion ban into law Wednesday (Nov. 5) while abortion rights advocates prepared an attempt to reverse the ban in the courts.

“For years, a terrible form of violence has been directed against children who are inches from birth,” the president told a packed auditorium in Washington’s Ronald Reagan Building. “Today, at last, the American people and our government have confronted the violence and come to the defense of the innocent child.”

The president cited medical research saying the majority of so-called “partial-birth” abortions are not required by medical emergency. He called the operations, which are used for late-term abortions, “a violation of medical ethics.”

But less than an hour later, a federal judge in Nebraska issued a limited injunction against the new law. Judges in New York and San Francisco also heard challenges to the law.

“While it is also true that Congress found that a health exception is not needed, it is, at the very least, problematic whether I should defer to such a conclusion when the Supreme Court has found otherwise,” U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf said in Lincoln, Neb., according to the Associated Press.

Before signing the bill, Bush told the audience that his signature was secondary to the power of a higher authority. “The right to life cannot be granted or denied by the government,” he said. “It comes from the creator of life.”

While the more than 400 people in the audience cheered Bush for what they hoped was a step toward reversing the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, about 100 protesters demonstrated outside to defend a woman’s right to abortion.

Outside the Reagan Building, representatives from the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood held signs that said: “Stop Bush’s War on Women” and “Keep Abortion Legal.”

Anti-abortion advocates, which include some religious organizations, tout the ban as the first step to complete abolition of abortion in America. Although backed by Republicans, the bill attracted some Democratic support when it passed the House 281-142 on Oct. 2, and in a 64-34 vote in the Senate on Oct. 21.

“Partial-birth” abortions are most frequently performed between 20 and 26 weeks, advocates of the law say. The fetus is partially delivered and then aborted _ a process the president called “a sudden, violent end to a life.”

The law imposes a two-year prison sentence and fines on any doctor who performs an “overt act” to end a late-term pregnancy.

But medical and legal experts from the Center for Reproductive Rights said the new law could criminalize abortions performed as early as 12 weeks into the pregnancy.

A center spokeswoman said the law could also encompass a number of procedures used to perform abortions. Because “partial-birth” is not a medical term for the outlawed procedure, the ban signed into law Wednesday could be used to persecute doctors for performing a number of different procedures.

Nancy Northup, the center’s president, said a “partial-birth” abortion is the safest and most common way to perform a late-term abortion.

“When you ban the safest and most common procedures, women are at increased risk of becoming infertile, getting serious infections, or even dying,” Northup said. “The Supreme Court has already said that a law like this would have `tragic health consequences.’ We will do everything in our power to prevent this dangerous ban from taking effect.”

Congress approved similar bans twice in the 1990s, but both bills were vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton.

In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down a similar ban enacted by the state of Nebraska because it was too vague and did not contain an exception to protect the mother’s health. Supporters say the new federal law is more specific and will survive a court challenge.

On Oct. 31, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed suit on behalf of Dr. LeRoy Carhart, the lead plaintiff in the Nebraska case, to challenge the new law. Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union also filed lawsuits before the bill’s signing, and other groups are expected to file their own suits.

But Bush said “the executive branch will vigorously … defend this law against anyone who might try to overturn it in the courts.”

Even a successful reversal of the law will not be a total victory, said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life office.

“This has brought the country dramatically into the pro-life position,” Ruse said. “No one wants to think about abortion _ it’s an unpleasant issue no matter where you stand on the issue. But this debate forced people to think about where they stand.”

Ruse said the Catholic Church has made promoting anti-abortion views a priority for 10 years. Throughout the past decade, church members have sent about 47 million postcards to Congress, calling for a ban on abortions, she said.

The new law is “a historic moment that no future court action will be able to take away,” Ruse said. “It’s a really beautiful grassroots effort that is culminating in the president’s signature.”


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