Patty Murray

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Legislation that would place another restriction on access to abortion cleared a major hurdle Tuesday, prompting reproductive rights advocates to gear up for another protracted legal battle over abortion rights.

By a margin of 65 to 34, the Senate passed a bill that would make it a federal crime to transport a pregnant woman under 18 across state lines to circumvent state parental notification laws. The legislation makes an exception for those whose lives are endangered by pregnancy but not for those whose health is in danger.

Thirty-four states have some form of parental consent or notification law, though some of those laws are not enforced because of court battles or actions by state attorneys general, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice think tank in New York. If the Senate measure becomes law, notification would essentially be required in all states.

“Reasonable people can at least come together on some restrictions on abortion,” said Sen. John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada who sponsored the legislation. “This is one of those reasonable restrictions.”

Democrats disagreed. “This bill is just another ploy for the majority to get their base on their side in an election year,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said, citing recent votes on proposals that would amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage and flag-burning. “Women’s lives are being used as pawns in a political debate.”

The bill prohibits parents and other adults from taking a pregnant minor to another state to have an abortion without complying with parental involvement laws in the young woman’s home state.

If the bill is signed into law, the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union has committed to challenging it on behalf of the National Abortion Federation, a professional association of abortion providers based in Washington, D.C.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Center for Reproductive Rights–two abortion rights groups in New York–have also committed to challenging the bill on behalf of various clients, said Julie Sternberg, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

The first step in a legal challenge would be to seek an immediate injunction to prevent the law from taking effect while the case is litigated, Sternberg said.

Reconciling Two Versions

But the bill first has to win the president’s signature. That can happen only after a conference committee session in which House and Senate negotiators hammer out the differences between the Senate bill and a stricter House version that passed last year.

The House bill encompasses the Senate language but also would require doctors to notify out-of-state parents at least 24 hours before performing an abortion or give notice in writing at least 72 hours in advance of the procedure. Those who do not do so could be sued for damages.

Religious opponents say the legislation is necessary to ensure that parents are involved in their children’s decisions to have an abortion. They say the bill will prevent family planning clinics, boyfriends and other individuals from coercing vulnerable teens into having abortions without their parents’ knowledge.

“Adult men have a very significant interest in getting a girl they’ve impregnated out of a state with parental consent laws into another state (without such laws) to get her an abortion,” said Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women for America, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. “They don’t want to be subject to statutory rape laws and they don’t want to be liable for child support for 18 years. So they want to destroy the evidence.”

Endangering Young Women

But critics say the measure endangers pregnant young women. If signed into law, the legislation might force young women to involve an abusive parent in their decision-making, deter those who may have to travel longer distances or wait longer periods for abortions, compel minors to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, drive themselves to a clinic or perhaps perform an abortion on themselves.

“I don’t see how my colleagues can say this bill is about the safety of young women when it endangers them more,” Murray said during the Senate debate Tuesday afternoon.

President Bush is expected to sign whatever version of the bill emerges from conference committee. If he does, it would be the latest restriction in a campaign by anti-choice religious advocates to chip away at abortion rights via incremental laws rather than an overarching measure to ban the procedure altogether.

During this congressional term, in addition to the parental consent measure, House Republican leaders have pledged to consider a measure that would require women who seek abortions after 20 weeks to acknowledge in writing that the fetus has the capacity to feel pain.

Series of New Laws

In 2004, President Bush signed into law legislation that criminalized injuries to fetuses that arise from violent offenses. And in 2003, he signed a bill that banned a procedure its opponents call “partial birth” abortion, a law that has the potential to outlaw all abortions performed after the 12th week of pregnancy.

This fall, the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider the constitutionality of the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. At the same time, reproductive rights groups will be preparing their challenge to the teen consent bill if it is signed into law.

As in the suit over the so-called partial birth abortion law, lawyers will stake much of their challenge to the teen consent bill on its lack of a health exception for the woman, Sternberg said. That requirement was upheld in the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey.

The legislation also violates principals of federalism and due process, Sternberg added. It requires a certain set of teens to abide by both the laws in states where they are traveling to and where they reside, she said, essentially treating some teens as “foreigners in other states.” In addition, the bill could subject teens to harm imposed by the government because it would encourage them to take the potentially dangerous task of driving themselves to and from clinics to get an abortion, she said.

LaRue of Concerned Women for America disagreed. “It’ll be upheld in a heartbeat,” she said, noting that the Supreme Court has upheld state parental notification laws in the past.

Even some pro-choice advocates concede that a legal challenge would be an uphill battle.

“The Supreme Court rulings on minors’ access would be tough to overcome,” said Gloria Feldt, the former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “I don’t hold out much hope given the fact that the courts have been packed by George Bush with anti-choice judges.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

American Civil Liberties Union Reproductive Freedom Project

Concerned Women for America

National Abortion Federation

Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of site the link points to may change.