WASHINGTON - The House approved a bill yesterday that would outlaw a disputed form of abortion, moving the measure a crucial step closer to becoming law and imposing the most significant limits on abortion in three decades.
The bill, which would ban a procedure critics call "partial birth" abortion, passed 282-139. The Senate approved a nearly identical bill in March, 64-33.
The two chambers are expected to quickly resolve the sole difference between their versions and send the bill to the White House.
President Bush has pledged to sign the legislation, which would make it the first federal statute criminalizing an established abortion procedure since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. That ruling established a woman's right to have an abortion before the time a fetus can live on its own.
In a statement released by the White House last night, Bush praised House passage of what he called "this important legislation ... that will help build a culture of life in America." He urged Congress to "send me the final bill as soon as possible so that I can sign it into law."
But abortion-rights advocates promised a quick legal challenge to the measure, including an effort to block it from taking effect while the court battle proceeds.
"When the president signs it, we will immediately go to court to have it enjoined in order to safeguard the health of women," said Vicki Saporta, spokeswoman for the National Abortion Federation, one of several groups preparing lawsuits against the legislation.
The measure's constitutionality is in question because in 2000 the Supreme Court struck down a similar law that Nebraska had enacted. The justices ruled against the state law because, they said, it could ban many forms of abortion - not just one procedure - and did not provide an exception for cases when a woman's health was at risk.
Proponents say the bill before Congress was drafted to withstand court scrutiny by making clear that the ban would apply narrowly to the procedure, which is generally used during the second trimester of pregnancy.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the Democratic whip, teamed with Republican Rep. James C. Greenwood of Pennsylvania to offer an alternative. It would have outlawed all late-term abortions - after the fetus can live outside the womb - except in cases when a doctor certified it was medically necessary to save the mother's life or protect her from serious adverse health consequences.
Hoyer had tried three times before to offer the amendment when the measure on the disputed form of abortion came before the House, but Republican leaders blocked him.
"Ours is clearly constitutional; ours will express and set forth that it is against the law to have late-term abortions," Hoyer said.
By contrast, the Republican-written measure asserts, in legislative language, that the specific procedure it bans is never medically necessary to protect a mother's life or health.
"The Congress cannot make something constitutional by simply articulating a finding that, 'This is constitutional,' " Hoyer said.
Opponents of the Republican measure also contend that it does nothing to prevent abortions because it outlaws only one specific procedure. While many Democrats are reluctant to put any restrictions on abortion rights, backers of the bipartisan alternative say they support a late-term abortion ban as long as it is effective and has exceptions to protect the mother.
"I think post-viability abortions should not be allowed simply because somebody decides they want to terminate a pregnancy," Hoyer said.
All of Maryland's Democrats and Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore supported Hoyer's substitute measure, with only Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, voting no.
Both of Maryland's Republicans and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat, supported the final measure, with the rest of the Democrats opposing it.
Critics call the procedure "partial birth" abortion because it involves partially removing a fetus from the womb intact before it is destroyed.
Under the bill, doctors would be allowed to perform such a procedure only to save the life of a pregnant woman but not for other health reasons.
The bill's supporters said the broader health exception was not necessary because they believe it has been established since the Supreme Court ruled in the Nebraska case that the procedure is never medically necessary to protect a woman's health. Critics dispute that, saying removing a fetus intact is sometimes the safest procedure because it reduces bleeding, infection and other risks to the woman.
There is no consensus about how many abortions would be affected by the measure. But it probably would be a fraction of the 1.3 million abortions performed nationally in 2000, the latest year for which figures are available. The vast majority of abortions are performed during the first trimester of pregnancy.
Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican who is the chief sponsor of the House bill, estimated that between 2,200 and 5,000 of the disputed abortions are performed each year.
Critics of the House bill say, however, that the impact of the measure could be broader because they believe the definition of the procedure is still vague enough that it could be seen as banning other, more common procedures.
Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Sun national staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.