Congress votes to ban 'partial birth' abortions

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America's House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a ban on so-called "partial birth" abortions, putting the religiously inspired pro-life movement on the brink of its biggest victory in years.

Last night's 282-139 vote still leaves some minor issues to iron out, following the passage of a slightly different ban in the Senate in March. However, analysts believe it is just a matter of time before the legislation reaches the desk of George Bush, who has called it "morally imperative and constitutionally permissible".

He has promised his supporters on the religious right that he will sign it into law.

According to medical experts, including the American College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians, the third-trimestre procedure, known in technical terms as "dilation and extraction", is rare and almost always performed either to protect the mother's health or to spare her the trauma of continuing a pregnancy when the child is severely deformed and likely to die shortly after birth.

Anti-abortion activists describe the procedure as barbaric. Congressman Christo- pher Smith of New Jersey said: "We have lived in denial of the violence of abortion for too long. Today, we can stop some of this violence against children."

The campaign has been high on the political agenda since a new generation of more right-wing, religiously inspired Republicans swept into Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections. The ban was approved twice in the 1990s but vetoed by President Bill Clinton. It surfaced again last year, but did not make it past the Senate's then Democratic leadership.

About 30 states, also under the influence of the religious right, have attempted to ban "partial birth" abortions, but have been told twice by the Supreme Court that their legislation is unconstitutional.