WASHINGTON -- In a surprising reversal, abortion foes in the House of Representatives voted yesterday to override President Clinton's veto of a bill that would outlaw a late-term abortion procedure denounced by its critics as infanticide.
In a 285-137 vote, House lawmakers rejected arguments that the ban would deny women who are experiencing crises pregnancies access to a procedure that could protect their health and future fertility. Opponents said the procedure is grotesque and brings a painful end to a life.
The measure is unlikely to become law, however, because the effort to override must also succeed in the Senate, where mustering the two-thirds majority required appears far more difficult. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said the upper chamber will vote on the issue as early as next Thursday but acknowledged that "it would be hard to override it."
In spite of its dim prospects, however, the vote in the House achieves two significant goals for abortion foes.
It revitalizes debate over the emotional abortion issue at a pivotal moment in electoral campaigns. And it shifts the political debate over abortion away from a focus on individuals' rights and toward the often-grim details of the procedures.
As a result, abortion foes believe the debate over the late-term abortion procedure that would be banned by the act will help nudge many Americans who favor legalized abortion to reconsider their positions.
"This was the most historic vote in the House since Roe vs. Wade," says Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican. "For the first time, attention has been focused on the child."
Smith added that the national debate over abortion "is just beginning." The victory for anti-abortion forces came after several House members with long records of supporting abortion-rights defected and voted against the White House. It also followed a nationwide grass-roots campaign that has brought lawmakers opposing the ban under intense political pressure.
The Maryland delegation divided largely along party lines, as it did in the earlier vote in March. All four Democrats, joined by one of four Republicans -- Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery nTC County -- voted against the bill. Abortion rights is one of Morella's signature causes.
Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, generally favors abortion rights, but he voted for the bill. "I think the procedure is abhorrent to almost everyone I have talked to on both sides of the issue," he said.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who also in general supports a woman's right to choose, said he thought that a limit on late-term abortions might persuade some people to do more to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
"My gut feeling is there is a limit to everything and this [is] one of the limits I would place on abortion," Gilchrest said. "Late-term abortions are not necessary to ensure that a woman has a right to choose."
Maryland's newest congressman, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, sided with the president in his first abortion vote on Capitol Hill.
"While I do not support the use of this procedure on demand, I do share the president's view that when a woman's doctor determines that such a procedure is necessary to protect her life, health and future ability to give birth, she should have that option," he said.
Both House and Senate passed the measure, known as the "partial birth abortion" ban, in March 1996, and Clinton vetoed it in April. Opponents of yesterday's override effort charged that abortion foes have deliberately delayed the vote to hand many Republican candidates an advantage at the polls this November.
Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, an abortion opponent, predicted yesterday that "the heat is going to turn up."
"All of a a sudden you have a legitimate firestorm here," said Santorum, who added that the opponents of the procedure are as many as 10 votes short in the Senate.
Abortion-rights activists denounced yesterday's vote, and downplayed its importance.
"I think the debate in Congress has shifted, but the debate among the American public has not," said Jo Blum, chief lobbyist for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "It is very clear the American public does not want the federal government intruding into decisions made between physicians and their patients."
Both sides in yesterday's debate brought powerful visual aids to the House floor to make their case. Again and again, anti-abortion lawmakers showed line-drawings of the procedure known to those who perform it as "intact dilation and extraction."
Produced by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has lobbied heavily on behalf of banning the procedure, the line-drawing depicts a fetus beyond the 20th week of development being delivered, feet-first, through the birth canal. With all of the fetus's body but the head delivered, the doctor pierces the skull and removes the contents, collapsing the head before removing the developing baby.
"People who say, 'I feel your pain' aren't referring to that little person," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, in a pointed reference to Clinton. "Can't we draw the line at baby torture? There's no argument here about when life begins. The child here is unmistakeably alive, unmistakeably moving."
Lawmakers arguing against the abortion ban repeated their assertions that the "partial birth" procedure is rarely performed, and represents no more than perhaps 1,000 of the 1.5 million abortions done yearly in the United States.
Pub Date: 9/20/96