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Abortion Debate Engulfs Senate as Government Shutdown Looms

  • Michael Bowman

FILE - A woman holds a sign showing a baby as she attends a "Women Betrayed Rally to Defund Planned Parenthood" at Capitol Hill in Washington, July 28, 2015.

FILE - A woman holds a sign showing a baby as she attends a "Women Betrayed Rally to Defund Planned Parenthood" at Capitol Hill in Washington, July 28, 2015.

A bill to set limits on abortion has been blocked in the U.S. Senate, the latest chapter in an emotionally-charged battle over reproductive rights that could provoke a partial government shutdown October 1.

Senate Democrats banded together to prevent debate on a bill mandating criminal penalties for doctors who terminate a pregnancy after 20 weeks of gestation — so-called late-term abortions.

“This bill is just one part of a sustained assault on women’s access to health care and a right to make decisions for herself and her family,” said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein.

“An unborn baby is just as much a person as you, as I, as each of us, only more innocent, more helpless, and therefore even more deserving of protection,” said Republican Senator Tom Cotton.

Cotton and other socially-conservative Republicans are pushing the issue with just more than a week to go before the U.S. government’s spending authority expires. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill funding everything except Planned Parenthood, a non-profit women’s health organization that is the nation’s top abortion provider.

White House veto looming

That bill has little chance of passing the Senate, and the White House has promised a veto of any measure defunding Planned Parenthood. A significant bloc of Republican lawmakers says it will not vote for any spending bill that includes such funding.

The standoff could shutter most U.S. government operations at midnight September 30. A similar partisan battle over President Barack Obama’s signature health care law provoked a shutdown that lasted more than two weeks in 2013.

Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to avoid a repeat, and the late-term abortion bill was seen as an effort to satisfy anti-abortion senators short of defunding Planned Parenthood.

“We in this chamber are never going to agree completely on the abortion question,” said McConnell. “But we should at least be able to agree that if an unborn child has reached the point where he or she can feel pain, that child’s life deserves protection.”

“Today we stand in the midst of another show vote designed to honor the political wish list of extremists,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. “Once again, Republicans have decided to place women’s health at the center of an ideological campaign.”

The Senate vote did not fall along strict partisan lines. Republican Senator Susan Collins said she opposes late-term abortions, but could not support the bill because it does not exempt women whose lives are at risk due to pregnancy.

“Regrettably, the bill before us provides no exception for when the physical health of the mother is at risk of serious harm,” said Collins.

Planned Parenthood has been a target of social conservatives for decades, but exploded into national headlines earlier this year after secretly-taped videos were released showing managers discussing the sale of organs from aborted fetuses.

The group says it broke no laws.

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