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The leading sponsor of the bill to ban so-called ``partial birth abortions' says the chances of gaining a two-thirds Senate majority are improving.


Bidding for a veto-proof majority in the Senate, Republican backers of a ban on a certain late-term abortion procedure agreed to minor changes in their bill Monday and pocketed the endorsement of the American Medical Association in return.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., leading sponsor of the legislation, said the changes are designed to ``protect the doctor who's delivering the baby who runs into complications' and must unexpectedly abort the fetus because the pregnant patient's life is in jeopardy.The AMA, which last week had declined to endorse the measure, gave Santorum a pledge of support.

``Although our general policy is to oppose legislation criminalizing medical practice or procedure, the AMA has supported such legislation where the procedure was narrowly defined and not medically indicated,' wrote P. John Seward, the AMA's executive vice president. The pending Senate bill ``now meets both those tests,' he wrote.

The changes won the backing of the National Right to Life Committee, a leading foe of abortion. But Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, attacked the AMA.

``For the AMA to welcome politicians' intrusion into doctors' professional decision-making leaves the medical profession absolutely vulnerable to political whims while sacrificing the health of women and the privacy and the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship,' she said in an interview. ``It's clear the AMA cares more about moving their political agenda through an anti-choice, Republican-controlled Congress than they care about women's health or their constitutional rights.'

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said a final vote on the Senate measure would be scheduled this week, possibly as early as today.

Santorum made his comments at a news conference where he was joined by Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., who sponsored the measure in the House to ban so-called ``partial birth abortions.'

Santorum told reporters the chances of gaining a two-thirds majority behind the measure were improving. He said there are 62 solid votes of support and ``more than enough' wavering lawmakers to get the final vote total past the two-thirds level.

Those publicly uncommitted include Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, and GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Santorum declined to name any others. Daschle's office declined to comment on the AMA's change in position.

The House earlier passed a version of the ban, providing for an exception only when the life of the pregnant patient was at risk, by a veto-proof majority of 295-136.

If adopted, the changes in the legislation announced on Monday would send the bill back to the House for a final vote.

President Clinton, who vetoed a similar bill last year, has promised to do so again unless sponsors provide for an exemption in cases of a woman's health - a requirement laid down in past rulings by the Supreme Court. Santorum's bill would permit the procedure only if the woman's life was in danger.

The immediate impact of the AMA's decision was unclear, although backers of the legislation had previously been heartened by a surprise announcement by Daschle last week that he might abandon his previous opposition to the bill.

Daschle had tried unsuccessfully to fashion a compromise that would ban a broader range of late-term abortions than the one procedure covered by the GOP measure. At the same time, his proposal would have permitted a broader range of exemptions from the ban, to take effect if continuation of a pregnancy would threaten ``grievous injury' to a woman's health. His proposal was rejected, 64-36, and Daschle subsequently said he had not yet decided how to vote on the GOP measure.

In an interview Friday with reporters in South Dakota, Daschle said he was consulting with constitutional experts about the bill.

``I think there are some very legitimate constitutional questions here,' he said, adding that he believed the legislation ``may be unconstitutional.

Santorum said the changes are designed to shelter doctors from overzealous prosecution. Any doctor accused of performing an illegal procedure would have the right to a review by a state medical board before trial. In addition, he said a provision has been inserted to clarify that an abortion provider may not deliberately deliver a living fetus partially into the birth canal with the intent of aborting the fetus. The third change, he said, ``is to make quite clear that where the life of the mother is at risk, the doctor will have all options available to him or her in order to save that life.'


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