WASHINGTON (AP) _ Courting a veto by President Clinton, the Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation Wednesday night to impose a ban on certain late-term abortions.

The measure would ban the rarely-used technique _ termed ``partial birth abortion'' by its opponents _ except in cases where it is essential to save the mother's life.

The vote in the House was 286-129, more than enough to override a threatened veto. Senate approval of the measure last year was by a narrower 54-44 vote that would sustain a veto.

House passage came after emotionally charged debate, and support for the measure crossed party lines.

The procedure is an ``offense to the conscience of mankind. This is something we need to stop now,'' said Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., a leading supporter of the legislation.

The procedure, which is a variation of more traditional abortions, is referred to by some doctors as ``intact dilation and evacuation.'' It involves partially extracting a fetus, legs first, through the birth canal, then collapsing its skull and suctioning out the skull contents.

By passing the measure, Republicans intend to confront Clinton with an election-year dilemma. Given the gruesome nature of the procedure involved _ and lawmakers described it in graphic detail during debate _ Republicans believe there is widespread public support for the bill. On the other hand, abortion rights groups whose support is important to the Democratic president oppose the measure as an infringement on a woman's right to choose, and are eager for the veto.

``We urge President Clinton to veto this legislation and preserve the ability of women and their physicians to make sound medical judgments free of political interference,'' Jane Johnson, interim president of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement shortly before the final vote.

The vote also demonstrated anew the strength of anti-abortion forces in the Republican-controlled Congress that took office in January last year. The measure marks the first time since abortion was legalized more than two decades ago that Congress sought to ban a particular method of the operation.

Rep. Tony Beilenson, D-Calif., argued the measure is merely the first step in an attempt by anti-abortion forces to overturn the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that granted women abortion rights.

He also called it an assault ``on the right of physicians to practice medicine without fear of government intrusion. He and several other lawmakers called for an exemption from the ban to take into account the health of the mother, as well as her life.

But Rep. Enid Greene Waldholtz, R-Utah, who gave birth to a daughter last year, called the procedure ``medicalized infanticide.'' The doctor ``partially delivers a live child before killing it,'' she said.

The vote capped an emotional struggle that consumed several months as the bill moved from the House to the Senate and back again.

White House officials have previously threatened a veto, and spokesman Michael McCurry said during the day there had been no change in the president's position.

In a letter to key lawmakers late last month, the president said he had ``studied and prayed'' on the subject, and wanted the bill changed to allow exemptions designed ``to preserve the life of the woman or avert serious health consequences to the woman.''

Without the changes, he wrote, the bill ``does not meet the constitutional requirements'' laid down in the Supreme Court's landmark abortion ruling.

Supporters of the measure had already made clear that Clinton's conditions were unacceptable, though, when the bill moved through the Senate last December. The health-or-life exception was rejected at that time, 51-47.

Of the nation's 1.3 million abortions in 1993, about 13,300 were performed after the 21st week of gestation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But nobody tracks how often the ``intact dilation and evacuation'' method is performed. An abortion rights group estimates it at 500; opponents estimate many more than that.

Abortion rights supporters say late-term abortions, in the second or third trimester of pregnancy, are typically done only in cases of profound fetal difficulty such as anencephaly, in which the fetus lacks all or a major part of its brain. But supporters of the legislation say women sometimes simply opt for late-term abortions.

There was no doubting the political component of the debate. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops purchased a full-page advertisement in Monday's Washington Post criticizing Clinton's call for an exception in cases of the mother's health. Such exemptions, the advertisement said, might include ``can't afford a baby and a new car.''

``So, President Clinton, if you're trying to ease your conscience by agreeing to sign (the bill) with a `health of the mother' exception, you should be aware. You'll be fooling nobody but yourself,'' the ad said.

Under the legislation, a physician who violates the provisions would be subject to a fine and prison term of up to two years. A father may sue the doctor for damages, but only if he was married to the mother at the time the procedure was carried out.

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The bill is HR 1833.