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Congress Debates Abortion Bill Affecting Minors

DON GONYEA, host:

The Senate today is expected to pass its first anti-abortion bill of the year. The measure would make it a crime to take a minor across state lines for an abortion if the girl's home state requires that her parents be involved in the decision. It's passed the House several times in the past eight years, but this is the first time the Senate has debated the measure.

NPR's Julie Rovner has this report.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

The concept behind the bill is fairly straightforward, says Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.

Mr. DOUGLAS JOHNSON (Federal Legislative Director, National Right to Life): More than half the states have laws in effect that require that a parent be notified or even give consent before a minor daughter can be given an abortion, or at least that the minor go to a state court to get an authorization.

ROVNER: The federal bill seeks to protect the rights of parents in those states to be involved. It would make it a crime for someone other than a parent to take a girl to get an abortion in a neighboring state that doesn't have a parental involvement law. Johnson says the bill should be no big deal, particularly since public opinion polls regularly show large majorities in favor of requiring parents to be involved in their daughter's abortion decisions.

Mr. JOHNSON: We're talking about parental involvement laws that have already been upheld by the federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. And Congress would now be stepping in and saying we're going to curb intrastate activities, activity across state lines, to evade these valid state laws.

ROVNER: Opponents of the bill, however, say it is a big deal and not in a good way.

Ms. NANCY KEENAN (President, NARAL Pro-Choice America): Good family communications cannot be mandated or imposed by politicians. And that's what this basically does.

ROVNER: Nancy Keenan is president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. She says most teenagers with unintended pregnancies do involve their parents in their decision-making, but this bill fails to protect those who don't tell, even if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Ms. KEENAN: We call it the grandmother incarceration bill that actually could put grandmothers in jail. And it is very, very extreme.

ROVNER: One of the amendments that will be offered in today's debate would exempt grandparents or members of the clergy from the blanket ban. But Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life says that would create yet another loophole.

Mr. JOHNSON: I myself was ordained about an hour ago. It took me four minutes on an Internet site. I'm now a minister in the Universal Life Church. And I have all the legal powers attached to anybody who is ordained.

ROVNER: NARAL's Keenan says the whole debate could be avoided if Congress instead concentrated on preventing teens from getting pregnant in the first place, the subject of another amendment to be offered today. But she says she doubts that concerns about pregnant teenagers is what's prompting Senate Republicans to bring up the bill in the first place.

Ms. KEENAN: It's exactly what we've seen them do around the issues like gay marriage and the long-standing items on the right wing to-do list. And instead of dealing with the issues that Americans are faced with everyday, from rising gas prices, and falling wages, and the war in the Middle East, they are trying to get the public distracted by these hot-button issues.

ROVNER: Even if the Senate passes the bill, as expected, it will still have to be reconciled with a bill the House passed last year. That bill includes not only the interstate travel ban, but would also make it a crime for doctors to perform an abortion on a minor from another state without first providing at least 24 hours notice to a parent.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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