The Senate has approved a measure that would prohibit taking a minor across state lines to have an abortion without informing her parents. The 65-34 vote is the first time the Senate has approved such a bill — many states already have laws covering such cases.
Opponents charged that the bill is tied to election-year politics.
About half of the states have laws that require a minor seeking an abortion to get her parents consent or to notify them. The new Senate bill would make it a crime to take a girl under the age of 18 to a state without such laws in order to get an abortion.
The bill was sponsored by Nevada Republican John Ensign, who said it is meant to increase the "effectiveness of state laws designed to protect parents and their young daughters from the health and safety risks associated with secret abortions."
In supporting the bill, Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum pointed to phone-book ads appearing in some of his state's communities. He said they encouraged minors to travel to neighboring states to clinics that require "no consent, no waiting period."
Backers of the measure pointed to polls showing wide support for laws that require parental consent before a minor can get an abortion — something they said both supporters of abortion rights and opponents agreed on.
But opponents of the bill said that in certain situations, the new restrictions would mean that family members trying to protect a girl from an abusive father could face prosecution.
"This bill, as it is drafted, will throw a grandmother in jail," California Democrat Barbara Boxer said in the debate session, describing a hypothetical case in which a father commits incest against his daughter — who then looks to her family for help.
By a vote of 98-0, senators modified the measure so that abusive fathers would not be protected under the legislation. Another amendment that would have exempted clergy members was not offered.
Lawmakers also defeated a proposal to provide federal funds for sex-education courses and abstinence programs, offered as potential ways to avoid teen pregnancies.
The House approved its own most recent version of the interstate restrictions last year. Its bill contains several differences from the Senate measure, which will have to be worked out in a conference committee before President Bush will have a chance to sign the bill. It isn't clear if that will happen in this session of Congress — Tuesday night, Democrats blocked the naming of Senate negotiators.
State laws on minors and abortion run the gamut. The doctor might be required to notify a parent. Or a parent might have to give written consent. But there may be exceptions: the minor can sometimes bypass these rules — for example, if parental notification would lead to abuse. And in some states, no parental permission is needed.