WASHINGTON -Delving once again into the volatile arena of abortion politics, the Senate began debate yesterday on a bill to ban a specific controversial abortion procedure, with the measure widely expected to reach the president's desk.
The bill, similar to one twice vetoed by President Bill Clinton, has been a top goal of anti-abortion forces since 1995.
This time, congressional passage would be a significant victory for those groups because President Bush has made it clear that he would sign the bill.
Although Democrats and abortion-rights organizations are fighting the proposal and said they will offer a number of amendments to soften its impact, they concede that Republicans have more than enough votes to pass it.
"Partial-birth abortion is a detestable procedure that affronts and insults human dignity," Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who sponsored the bill, said before the debate began.
"It's a procedure that is unnecessary and does nothing to protect the health of the woman, and it is a brutal, savage way of exterminating the life of a baby that is at least halfway through the gestation period."
Abortion-rights advocates disputed this stark description of the procedure, and they asserted that the issue is less about women's health than the constitutionally protected right to have an abortion, a right they say the Bush administration is steadily seeking to erode.
"Anti-choice lawmakers and President Bush are steadily advancing their agenda of using the government to make abortion illegal and unavailable," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
"The truth is, when medical decisions are needed, only the woman and her doctor should decide, not politicians or the government."
Republican leaders listed the ban among their top 10 priorities after taking control of the Senate in last fall's elections, and the ban has long been sought by the party's conservative base.
More broadly, anti-abortion activists have seized on this procedure to throw abortion-rights advocates onto the defensive.
By focusing on what they describe as a "barbaric procedure," anti-abortion groups have made some inroads, including among some abortion-rights legislators in Congress, in arguing that the practice does not fall under the protection of Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
Abortion rights activists argue that the procedure is used very infrequently and is mostly performed when the mother or the fetus is in serious danger.
The precise number performed each year is difficult to pinpoint because they are not reported with any consistency, but a report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute recently concluded that about 2,200 such procedures were performed in 2000, about one-fifth of 1 percent of all abortions.
Groups that support abortion rights also say the procedure is generally performed because the fetus is dead or is seriously damaged and would die shortly after birth.
In other cases, they say, continuing the pregnancy would place the mother's health in serious danger.
Anti-abortion groups maintain that the number of such procedures performed is considerably higher and that the procedure has often taken place when both the mother and fetus were healthy.
Bryan A. Keogh writes for the Chicago Tribune.