Senate takes up abortion debate

The Senate reopened the abortion debate Friday in advance of the
midterm elections, this time over a bill that would make it a federal
crime to take a teenager across state lines to end a pregnancy without
a parent’s knowledge.

Supporters of the bill say such incidents often occur when a girl,
or the man involved, wants to evade homestate parental consent laws.
Opponents say the bill would make criminals of well-meaning confidants,
such as relatives and clergy members, who might help a pregnant teen
whose parents are abusive.

Much of the discussion Friday concerned how to balance a parent’s
right to know with a woman’s right to end a pregnancy as spelled out by
the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

“How would you feel as a parent in a situation like that?” asked the bill’s Senate sponsor, John Ensign, R-Nev.

“Those who would object to it have a high burden to show what is
unreasonable about the legislation,” added Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who is managing opposition to the bill
during floor debate, said, “Instead of doing something to improve the
health of women and girls, the Republican leadership is spending
precious time on a bill that protects incest predators, throws
grandmothers in jail and violates our Constitution.”

She said Democrats would try to amend the bill but predicted it would be approved considering the Republicans’ 55-44-1 majority.

Polls suggest there is widespread public backing for the bill
supporters’ sentiments about a parent’s right to know about a child’s
actions regarding abortion. In polls, almost three-quarters say they
think a parent has the right to give consent before a child under 18
has an abortion.

Under the bill, anyone who helps a pregnant minor cross state lines
to obtain an abortion without parental knowledge could be punished by
unspecified fines and up to a year in prison. The girl and her parents
would not be vulnerable to criminal penalties. The measure contains an
exception for those who help underage girls get such abortions to avoid
life-threatening conditions.

Supporters contended the legislation is not really an abortion bill,
but instead proposes new safeguards against exploitation of girls by
the men who impregnate them and may put them in danger. They presented
stories of girls transported over state lines who underwent botched
abortions and later developed health problems.

Sessions said the legislation puts no new constraints on abortion.

But the bill’s opponents say it amounts to a national parental
consent law that would cut off an escape route for pregnant girls with
abusive parents.

“It’s very dangerous to young women,” said Melody Drnach, vice
president for grass roots activism for the National Organization for
Women. “The most vulnerable young women it leaves out are those who are
victims of incest and abuse within their own family and their own
network of adults. And it is not going to help grandmothers and aunts
and sisters who want to help out in a time of crisis.”

Other opponents said the bill was just the latest in a line of
socially conservative measures GOP leaders are bringing up for
congressional votes in an effort to energize the Republican Party’s
most loyal base of voters.

The debate rhetoric closely tracked arguments over the right to
abortion. Ensign and Sessions noted that a child needs parental
permission to receive aspirin at school and to go on a field trip, but
no parental consent is required for an abortion.

Democrats are expected to offer amendments to add exceptions for
such confidants as grandparents and clergy. One proposed amendment
would provide an exception for those who help girls get abortions in
other states when their pregnancies result from rape or incest.

More than 30 states have parental involvement laws, but there is no
federal policy requiring other states to honor them when girls cross
jurisdictions secretly to obtain abortions.

The House passed a similar bill in April 2005.

The bills are S. 403 and H.R. 748.


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© 2006 The Associated Press