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Bill on late-term abortions produces emotional debate in Senate

May 14, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate plunged into emotional debate Wednesday on Republican legislation to ban certain late-term abortions, and a leading sponsor expressed confidence the votes were secure to defeat a White House-backed alternative.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., conceded, however, that Democratic leader Tom Daschle’s rival proposal was hampering his bid to amass a veto-proof majority behind his bill. ``It’s certainly not helping the situation any,″ he said.

Santorum is point man on the Senate floor for a GOP measure to ban a procedure critics call ``partial-birth abortions″ except in cases in which a woman’s life is in danger. Daschle has countered with an alternative that would ban a variety of abortions after the point at which a fetus is viable outside the womb. At the same time, Daschle’s measure permits exemptions in cases in which the pregnancy posed a risk of ``grievous injury″ to the woman, and does not pre-empt state laws already on the books.

The American Medical Association’s board of trustees Wednesday said the procedure should be used rarely if at all, but did not take a position on the legislation. The board said in a 35-page report that there is ``no identified situation″ in which partial-birth abortion is the ``only appropriate procedure.″

``The AMA recommends that the procedure not be used unless alternative procedures pose materially greater risk to the woman,″ the report said, but it added, ``the physician must, however, retain the discretion to make that judgment.″ The AMA’s House of Delegates will consider making the report official policy at its annual meeting next month.

A final Senate vote on the legislation is expected Thursday or perhaps next week. The measure is identical to a bill that Congress passed last year and that President Clinton vetoed.

Clinton, who has vowed to veto the GOP measure once again if it passes, swung behind Daschle’s proposal during the day. Spokesman Mike McCurry told reporters the president ``has indicated to Senator Daschle he supports Senator Daschle’s amendment.″ McCurry had signaled on Tuesday that Clinton would support the measure, saying it appeared to satisfy his condition that legislation on the subject take a woman’s health into account.

McCurry made his comments as Santorum, on the Senate floor, made the case for the legislation in highly charged terms. Referring to oversized illustrations that showed a fetus in various stages of delivery, he said a physician performing a ``partial-birth″ abortion ``suctions the brains out of the baby. That causes the head to collapse and then the baby is delivered,″ he said. ``This is what we’re trying to ban here, nothing else. Nothing else.″

The procedure, more complicated than first-trimester abortions, involves partially extracting a fetus, legs first, through the birth canal, cutting an incision in the barely visible skull base and then draining the contents of the skull.

The debate produced sparks at the outset, when Santorum sought permission for a 5 1/2-year-old girl to obtain admission to the visitors’ gallery that overlooks the Senate floor. Senate rules limit admission to children who are at least 6 years old. ``She is very interested in this subject, and I will discuss her case and she would like to hear the debate,″ Santorum said of the girl.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., objected to the request ``on the basis of my being a grandmother, and I think it is rather exploitive to have a child present in the gallery at this time.″ She later added she believed she was ``acting in the best interests of that child.″

Santorum went on to refer to the girl, Donna Joy Watts, in her absence.

In a telephone interview, the girl’s mother said she had been told that she needed a late-term abortion when she was seven months pregnant because the fetus’ death was ``imminent from severe hydrocephalous and so much brain was found missing on the ultrasound.″

The mother, Lori Watts of Greencastle, Pa., said she declined to have the abortion and her daughter now has a life ``very akin to other children her age.″ The girl is educated through home schooling, as are her three sisters, the mother added.

In addition to Boxer, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein also argued against the GOP measure. ``It’s the opening wedge of a long march to take us back 30 years″ to the days before abortion was legal, she said. Feinstein and Boxer are backing an alternative that provides a broader exemption based on a women’s health than Daschle’s bill does. It is not expected to pass.

On the other hand, Daschle has worked hard to line up Democrats and a handful of Republicans behind his measure. Santorum said in a brief interview he feels confident Daschle had failed to peel off more than a few Republicans. Republicans hold a 55-45 majority in the Senate.

Daschle would need the support of five Republicans as well as all 45 Democrats to prevail, assuming Vice President Al Gore was present to break a tie.

Daschle suffered one blow during the day when Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Democrat-turned-Republican, disclosed plans to vote against the alternative bill. Campbell has generally been a supporter of abortion rights, and voted last year against the GOP measure. In a floor speech, he said he would vote for the bill this time.

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