WASHINGTON — President Clinton and the Republican Congress are headed toward another duel over late-term abortions.
This time, opponents of so-called "partial-birth" abortion are gambling they can beat the president with the exact same bill that he vetoed last year.
Abortion foes hold up public-opinion polls, which show strong support for the ban, to back their position. They also cite the recent admission of an advocate for abortion providers that the procedure is not as rare as previously claimed.
Anti-abortion activists - who were expected yesterday to win passage of the bill in the House of Representatives by a wide margin - were unwilling to add an exception to the ban that would allow women whose health is threatened to undergo the procedure. Mr. Clinton has said he would approve the ban if it included the health exception.
"If the right-to-life movement were smart, they'd cut a deal on the health word," says David Garrow, a historian on the abortion issue. "Clinton would sign the bill, and pro-lifers could declare victory."
But in the annals of this nation's long and emotional battle over abortion, the word "health" has become laden with meaning. In the eyes of abortion foes, a "health exception" is code language for abortion on demand. "Health," they say, can be taken to mean any aspect of a woman's health, including her mental health, an area so ill-defined as to cover just about any situation.
"There's no victory in talking about health exceptions for infanticide," says Gail Quinn of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Supporters of the ban do allow for an exception when the life of the mother is threatened.
How much support in the Senate?
Following the House action, the question is whether the Senate will pass the bill with at least 67 votes, enough to override a presidential veto. The Senate will take up the legislation later this spring.
In the last Congress, the House overrode the president's veto but the Senate failed to do so by eight votes.
But last November's elections not only maintained a strong anti-abortion majority in the House, it also ushered in a Senate that is more opposed to abortion than the previous one. How strongly the new Senate will support the ban on partial-birth abortion - a procedure known as "dilation and extraction" that many consider to be gruesome - is open to speculation.
In the face of public opinion, abortion-rights supporters in the House have put forward legislation of their own. Their bill, introduced by Reps. Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland and James Greenwood (R) of Pennsylvania, would ban the abortion of a fetus that is viable, meaning that it could survive outside the womb.
But abortion foes say that bill, which has Clinton's support, would in fact not ban any abortions at all. They cite the pivotal health exception in the bill, which would allow the procedure "if in the medical judgment of the attending physician, the abortion is necessary ... to avert serious health consequences to the woman."
At a recent press conference, Congressman Hoyer explained that the health exception could include "mental health" - the trigger phrase for anti-abortion objections. Hoyer also stated that the doctor performing the abortion would be the one determining viability, another anathema for abortion foes.
A precedent-setting piece of legislation?
If the bill halting partial-birth abortion were to become law, it would represent the first time Congress has banned a particular abortion procedure - a precedent that abortion-rights advocates are fighting. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes the bill; the American Medical Association is still studying it.
Those who defend a woman's right to abortion say their opponents are using the ban to push for a complete prohibition on abortion. But in recent years, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the central holding of its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. That ruling declared a woman's fundamental right to abortion on privacy grounds.