WASHINGTON – Maryland’s congressional delegation split largely along party lines Thursday as the House voted to approve a partial-birth abortion ban, with Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger as the only state Democrat voting for the measure.
All five of the state’s other House Democrats voted against the bill, which critics said was so vaguely written that it could be used to limit all abortions. Both Maryland Republicans voted for the bill.
The measure passed 281-142, with 12 members not voting. The Senate still has to take up the measure, but is expected to approve it and send it to the president, who has said he would sign the bill.
Ruppersberger, one of 63 Democrats who voted for the measure Thursday, said he did so “as a matter of conscience,” although the bill would prohibit the procedure even if the mother’s life was at risk.
“I believe in a woman’s right to choose and after discussing the issue with my wife and daughter I decided to vote for a ban on this extremely rare procedure as a matter of conscience,” he said in a prepared statement.
It is the latest attempt to prohibit so-called “partial-birth” abortion: President Clinton vetoed two previous bills, in 1996 and 1997. The House and Senate have each passed versions of the bill this year, and are now voting on a final conference committee report that irons out differences between their bills.
If approved this month, as expected, it will be the first federal limitation on abortion since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
Pro-choice advocates say the conference report’s language is vague and represents the first step toward trying to ban abortion altogether.
The bill does not define the point during a pregnancy when an abortion would be considered a partial-birth abortion. Instead, it specifies a procedure that begins with partial vaginal delivery of a live fetus that is aborted before it is fully delivered from the mother’s body.
“This is the first time since Roe v. Wade that the federal government has criminalized a safe medical procedure,” said Ashlie Bagwell, executive director of Maryland’s chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “It doesn’t just outlaw one procedure. It outlaws all associated procedures.”
Ruppersberger said he preferred the version of the bill that allowed the procedure to protect the mother’s health and welfare, but ultimately chose to support the measure even without those provisions.
“I regret that the alternate proposal (for mother’s health) was not included in the final version,” he said in a prepared statement.
Republican Reps. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, and Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, voted for the ban. Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer of Mechanicsville, Chris Van Hollen of Kensington, Al Wynn of Largo and Ben Cardin and Elijah Cummings of Baltimore all voted against it.
“We are making a medical judgment,” Hoyer said just before the vote. “That ought to be a deep concern to every American who believes that the federal government has no business injecting itself into the middle of the doctor-patient relationship.”
But Bartlett called partial-birth abortion a “hideous procedure.” He spoke twice before the vote, the first time next to a poster-sized picture of a fetus.
“It’s clearly a baby. It’s clearly smiling. It’s clearly a human,” Bartlett said of the fetus.
The Senate is on recess next week but should take the measure up when it returns, said a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee. Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, both Democrats, plan to vote against the ban when it reaches the Senate floor, their aides said.