JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri House gave first round approval to this year's partial birth abortion ban by a vote of 126 -30 -- 16 more votes than needed to override a veto by Gov. Mel Carnahan (the roll call vote is available from Missouri Digital News at http://www.mdn.org). Opponents, meanwhile, criticized the legislation as a mere political ploy.
The bill is nearly identical to the measure vetoed by the governor last year. The governor's office continues to argue that Carnahan supports a limited ban on partial-birth abortions.
"The governor supports a ban on partial birth abortion," said Chris Sifford, Carnahan's spokesman. "But it has to have a provision to protect the health of the mother."
This year's debate is largely following the path of last year's. The opposing sides are again unwilling to compromise on a provision that would allow the procedure to preserve the health of the woman.
The bill passed by the House, like last year's bill, would allow the procedure only when necessary to save the mother's life, but not her health.
An amendment that would have introduced a health exemption was defeated during House debate.
Sifford would not speculate on whether the governor could win enough votes to prevent a veto override this year. Carnahan's veto was sustained last year by one vote in the Senate. Eight senators -- including a lone female Republican -- switched their votes to support the Democratic governor's veto. An override requires 109 votes in the House and 23 in the Senate.
Critics of the bill contend that the bill does not meet the constitutional standards set forth by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. They say the bill must allow the procedure to preserve the mother's health, is too vague in defining what procedures would actually be restricted, and could apply to abortions performed before a fetus' viability.
"Does this body really want to abolish a certain abortion procedure?" asked majority leader Gracia Backer, D-New Bloomfield. Backer said during floor debate that the perennial legislation only served to keep a volatile issue alive.
Backer appeared jaded by this year's debate, saying that courts have struck down laws that don't address the health of the mother.
"And yet this assembly continues to ignore it," Backer said. "I'm voting for this bill today so it's one step closer to being overruled by a court."
Opponents of the health provision contend that a health exemption would allow the procedure too easily.
"You can drive an 18-wheeler through the health exemption," said Jon Dolan, a R-Lake St. Louis.
Some lawmakers have attacked the health provision because it includes mental health. That provision, critics argue, would let a woman undergo the procedure for frivolous reasons such as feeling fat in a swimsuit.
Tim Harlan, D-Columbia, criticized lawmakers for passing legislation that he says will result in court challenges and attorney fees.
"I'm still concerned that this bill is so vague," Harlan said. "I don't think that's an accident."
Another issue raised by the bill is whether partial birth abortions are actually performed in Missouri.
"The [abortion] opposition has no proof," Sifford said. "They are not done."
For the hours of debate this has consumed in Missouri's legislature during the past two years, it may be just a hypothetical debate.
The Health Department tracks the number of abortions performed on Missouri residents.
Nanci Gonder, public information officer for the Health Department said that in documents dating back to 1971, the department has not found any record of either partial birth abortion or "intact dilation and extraction," the medical term for the procedure most similar to that described as partial birth abortion.
"We've never had a partial birth abortion recorded," Gonder said.
Bill sponsor Bill Luetkenhaus, D-Josephville, said that some could have been performed illegally or otherwise not recorded.