WASHINGTON - The House passed a bill yesterday that would make it a federal crime for an adult to transport an underage girl across state lines to have an abortion without the consent of her parents. A vote on a similar bill is expected in the Senate later this spring or early this summer, and backers says its chances are good.
The measure, called the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act, passed 270-157, and was a victory for abortion opponents, who have been pushing an ambitious legislative agenda now that Congress is under strengthened Republican control.
"This legislation will close a loophole that allows adults not only to help minors break state laws by obtaining an abortion without parental consent, but also contributes to ending the life of an innocent child," said the chief sponsor, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican.
The bill, intended to prevent minors from going to different states to circumvent more- restrictive laws in their home states, applies to adults who accompany girls age 17 and younger. It also requires doctors who perform abortions on underage girls to comply with state notification laws and in some cases to notify the girl's parents in person. Violators are subject to a $100,000 fine, one year in jail or both.
The bill also imposes a 24-hour waiting period for girls who travel to another state to undergo an abortion, in some cases even if they are accompanied by their parents.
Supporters characterize the measure as pro-family, saying it will prevent abusive boyfriends and others from taking vulnerable girls across state lines to receive "secret abortions" against their will. They argue that the decision to have an abortion should rest solely with the parents. Amendments that would have allowed grandparents or members of the clergy to accompany the minors were rejected.
The measure has the strong backing of the White House, which issued a statement yesterday saying the bill "is consistent with the administration's view that parents' efforts to be involved in their children's lives should be protected and the widespread belief among authorities in the field that the parents of pregnant minors are best suited to provide them with counsel, guidance and support."
Opponents call the measure misguided. They say it would violate a Supreme Court ruling that required state parental notification laws to include alternatives, such as permitting abortions with a judge's consent. And they say it would put some girls, such as those who are the victims of sexual abuse by their fathers, in serious danger.
"Thankfully, most young women involve their parents in the decision to seek an abortion," said Democratic Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, urging her colleagues to vote against the measure. "But under this legislation, those who feel they cannot turn to their parents when facing an unintended pregnancy will be forced to fend for themselves without any help from a responsible adult. Some will seek unsafe abortions close to home. Others will travel to unfamiliar places seeking abortions by themselves."
The bill incorporates an earlier measure that has passed the House three times since 1998. The earlier bill, called the Child Custody Protection Act, did not impose criminal sanctions against doctors, only against the adults who accompanied minors across state lines from a state that had strict parental consent laws to one that did not.
In the Senate, the custody protection act is among the top 10 legislative priorities of Sen. Bill Frist, the majority leader. The November elections put seven new Republican freshmen in office, most of them staunch abortion opponents, so backers of the measure - which has never gotten through the Senate - are hopeful it will pass this year.
"We think it will still be a big fight, because the bill is vehemently opposed by the pro-abortion pressure groups, but we are cautiously optimistic," said Douglas Johnson, a spokesman for the National Right-to-Life Committee, which supports the legislation.
According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion-rights advocacy group, 33 states have some form of parental notification law that restricts access to abortion.
Twenty-three have strict measures that require parental notification; an additional 10 states have laws that require parental notice but permit other adults to be notified, or allow health providers to waive the consent requirement. Seventeen states, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California, have no law restricting access to abortion for minors.
NARAL argues that the House bill would create a confusing layer over this existing patchwork of laws, particularly because the measure requires doctors to comply with parental notification laws in both the state in which they practice and the state in which the patient resides.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said, "It would in effect make the young girl carry the laws of her state on her back wherever she goes. I know of no law that has attempted to do this kind of thing since the Fugitive Slave Act of the 1850s."
But Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said the bill was necessary to prevent "abortion mills" from luring girls across state lines by advertising in states like his, where there are no notification laws.
"The abortion industry's engraved invitation to young girls to procure a secret abortion means it becomes more likely that more abortions will occur," he said.
Legislation that would restrict abortions passed the House and heads to the Senate. The bill would prevent people from evading abortion laws concerning minors in 33 states. Under the legislation:
It would be a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines with the intent of circumventing parental consent laws and getting an abortion.
Physicians who perform abortions on minors who live in other states must give written notification in person to the minor's parents 24 hours before the abortion.