WASHINGTON – President Bush gave a long-sought victory to anti-abortion activists Wednesday by signing a bill restricting so-called partial-birth abortions, but one federal court quickly blocked the new law and other courts considered similar action.

Minutes after Bush signed the first major federal restrictions on abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court declared abortion legal nationwide in 1973, a federal judge in Nebraska issued a temporary restraining order barring the Justice Department from enforcing the law against four doctors who practice in more than a dozen states.

Federal judges in New York and San Francisco on Wednesday heard arguments in similar lawsuits filed by opponents of the ban.

As the fierce eight-year political fight over the banning of the a particular type of abortion moves from Capitol Hill to the courts, Bush vowed to continue the fight to ensure the ban is enacted.

“The executive branch will vigorously defend this law against any who would try to overturn it in the courts,” Bush told several hundred energized anti-abortion activists invited to the bill signing in a federal office building named for President Ronald Reagan, a staunch opponent of abortion.

Attorney General John Ashcroft’s office later issued a statement declaring he would “devote all resources necessary to defend the law,” which prohibits a rarely used type of abortion termed “partial-birth” abortion by opponents of the procedure. The law applies to certain abortions performed after the 14th week of pregnancy. The procedure is known medically as dilation and extraction.

In addition to filing lawsuits, abortion rights groups scheduled protest marches and television advertising campaigns to oppose the new law. Several dozen protesters greeted Bush outside the Reagan building as he arrived for the bill signing, waving signs that read “Keep Abortion Legal” and “We trust our doctors more than we trust Bush.”

Opponents of the ban said the new law chips away at the rights of women to seek an abortion and that the measure is so vaguely worded that it may be expanded to include any abortion performed after the first trimester.

The Supreme Court in 2000 struck down a Nebraska law restricting the so-called partial-birth procedure because the law did not allow doctors to perform such abortions even if the mother’s health was endangered. Because the new federal law also fails to provide such an exception, abortion rights advocates said they are hopeful the courts will eventually strike down the new ban.

“This law would force doctors to choose between exercising their best medical judgment or going to jail,” said Vickie Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, one of the groups that is suing to keep the ban from taking effect.

Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, called the measure “an affront to women,” while June Walker, national president of the Jewish women’s group Hadassah, said it “deals a stunning blow to women’s health.”

Anti-abortion activists, who have tried for eight years to pass such legislation only to have it vetoed twice by President Bill Clinton, hailed Bush’s signing of the restrictions.

“The view of the American people on this issue has been clear for years, and Washington is finally catching up with public opinion,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said. “Today signifies a turning point in the debate over abortion.”

Raymond Flynn, president of Your Catholic Voice, which represents a voting bloc being targeted by Bush’s re-election campaign, declared that “the voice of silent America was heard.”

Bush has always treaded lightly on the abortion issue, insisting since the 2000 presidential campaign that he seeks to create a “culture of life” in America, but leaving the fight over specific abortion legislation to others. And while some in the Republican Party push for a total ban on abortions, Bush has deemed such a goal impractical.

But in front of the hundreds of cheering anti-abortion activists Wednesday, the president spoke passionately in defense of the new restrictions and against abortion in general.

“For years, a terrible form of violence has been directed against children who are inches from birth, while the law looked the other way,” Bush said. “Today, at last, the American people and our government have confronted the violence and come to the defense of the innocent child.

“The right to life cannot be granted or denied by government,” he said, “because it does not come from government. It comes from the creator of life.”

When Bush thanked the activists who “worked long and hard to see this bill come to fruition,” an audience member shouted back, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

Bush portrayed the ban as a bipartisan measure. But women’s groups and Democrats used the new law to portray Bush as a captive of far-right interest groups and to drive home to voters the fact that whoever wins the 20004 presidential race will likely make appointments to the Supreme Court, altering a court now narrowly divided on the issue of abortion.

“George Bush has crossed a line, and we are going to be working hard to make sure every member of America’s pro-choice majority understands the significance,” said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. The group is spending $500,000 to air TV ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., calling the ban a threat to legal abortion and women’s rights.

Democrats vying to challenge Bush in 2004 used the signing to portray the president as insensitive to women’s concerns.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called the law part of “the right-wing assault on the rights of women,” while retired Gen. Wesley Clark said it “sacrifices the health and safety of American women to make a political statement.”

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a physician, said, “This law will chill the practice of medicine and endanger the health of countless women.”

Democrats also pointed out that when Bush sat at a desk to sign the bill, surrounded by the lawmakers who moved the measure through the House and Senate, not a single woman was on the stage.

(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicago.tribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): bush-abortion

AP-NY-11-05-03 2126EST

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