WASHINGTON - Abortion opponents are poised to achieve a major victory today, with the Senate set to pass a measure, backed by President Bush, that would ban a procedure its critics call "partial-birth" abortion.
The passage of the bill, which is likely to clear the House and become law within weeks, would culminate nearly a decade of Republican efforts to ban the procedure. The bill would impose the first substantial federal curbs on abortion rights since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling established a constitutional right to abortion.
It also signals a setback for abortion rights supporters, who - with an all-Republican Congress and Bush in the White House - must now rely almost solely on the courts to block what they consider a dangerous attack on the right to abortion.
"It's going to absolutely end up in court, and I think it will be found unconstitutional," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.
Feinstein and other critics of the ban pointed to a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar Nebraska law as unconstitutional.
Though the outcome of the Senate's abortion debate was largely predetermined, both sides argued strenuously for the moral high ground on an issue that evokes intense emotions from both opponents and supporters of abortion rights.
Democrats failed in two efforts to narrow the ban, which would impose criminal penalties on doctors who perform the procedure. The Senate rejected two amendments - one offered by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and one by Feinstein - that would have banned late-term abortions except when the mother's health was at risk.
The Senate passed, 52-46, a nonbinding amendment by Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, reaffirming support for the Roe v. Wade decision and declaring it should not be overturned. Maryland's two Democratic senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, backed that amendment.
The underlying measure would criminalize a procedure that is used to end certain pregnancies during the second or third trimester. The procedure, known in the medical field as "dilation and extraction" or "D and X," involves delivering the body of an unborn fetus up to the head, suctioning the skull and then removing the fetus from the mother's body.
Proponents of the ban say they want to criminalize a procedure akin to infanticide that they say is inherently dangerous and never necessary to protect a woman's health. Armed with anatomical illustrations and laying out the details of the procedures, they called the procedure immoral and barbaric.
"This is an evil in our midst," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who is the chief sponsor of the ban. "It's a corruption of medicine that we cannot allow to continue in this country."
The measure's opponents warn that it is so broadly written that it could be used to ban constitutionally protected abortions. They also assert that the bill violates a requirement recognized by the Supreme Court that any law that limits abortions contain an exception to protect the mother's health.
"It could actually affect all abortions, and therefore accomplishes a major strike against a woman's right to choose," Feinstein said. She called the proposed ban a Trojan horse for undermining abortion rights in general.
The Senate rejected, 60-35, Feinstein's amendment, which would have banned abortions performed after a fetus is "viable," unless a doctor found it "necessary to preserve the life or health of the woman." It would have imposed only civil penalties for violating the ban.
Earlier yesterday, by 60-38, the Senate rejected Durbin's amendment, which would have allowed an exception to the proposed ban: If two physicians certified that continuing the pregnancy would "threaten the mother's life or risk grievous injury to her physical health." That requirement could be postponed if a doctor believed there was an emergency.
Mikulski and Sarbanes supported both amendments.
The amendments went to the heart of the 2000 Supreme Court ruling in the Nebraska case. The court found the Nebraska statute unconstitutional because it lacked an exception for protecting the health of the mother and because it defined "partial-birth abortion" so vaguely as to impose an "undue burden" on the right to abortion.
Proponents of the ban said a health exception was not needed, arguing that the Supreme Court erred in finding that the procedure could be necessary to protect a woman's health. In the bill, they assert that "a partial-birth abortion is never necessary to preserve the health of a woman."
The defeat of the amendments showed how difficult it is for lawmakers to find a middle ground on abortion issues. In an unlikely alliance, abortion opponents joined champions of Roe vs. Wade - who generally oppose any restrictions on abortion rights - in defeating Durbin's and Feinstein's amendments.
"What I learned is that the center of political feeling in the United States on abortion rights is very broad, but the center stripe in the Senate is very narrow," Durbin said. "I had opposition from both sides of the spectrum."
The Senate also rejected, 56-42, an amendment by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, that would have sent the measure back to committee to be rewritten so as to comply with the court's 2000 ruling.
Democrats and Republicans sounded sharply different tones during the debate. Republicans spoke at length of the technical, sometimes grotesque, details of the D and X procedure. Democrats instead discussed legal precedents, constitutional issues and fundamental rights.
By highlighting the clinical details, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, he and other opponents were trying to illustrate how offensive the procedure is to public morality.
"Partial-birth abortion is a rogue, fringe procedure that is repulsive to the American people, that is outside the ethical practice of medicine," said Frist, a heart surgeon. "Under Republican leadership, we will show that we will stand up and defend against this procedure."
Abortion rights supporters won a symbolic victory with the passage of Harkin's nonbinding amendment reaffirming the Senate's support for Roe vs. Wade. But they said that vote, too, gave them ample reason for concern.
"It again sends a signal that the majority of the Senate - although barely a majority - want to keep Roe v. Wade as it is, without overturning it," Harkin said. But the fact that 46 senators voted "no," he added, "ought to send a shock to the women of this country."