The Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, passed 380-15, states that an infant would be considered to have been born alive if he or she is completely extracted or expelled from the mother and breathes and has a beating heart and definite movement of the voluntary muscles.
Supporters said the bill was needed because of several recent Supreme Court decisions stated that the government's interest in protecting the unborn child is related to "viability," or the point at which the child can survive independently of the mother.
The bill is intended to clarify misconceptions that may arise because of the court's ruling, said Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., the measure's sponsor. "As members of this House, we should do everything we can to protect the most innocent and helpless members of the human family."
Democrats said the measure was unneeded because children born alive are protected under existing laws. Some accused Republicans of trying to score political points.
"The purpose of this bill is only to get the pro-choice members to vote against it. . . so they could say we support infanticide," complained Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. "This bill is unnecessary."
Abortion rights groups said the legislation was another effort to chip away at the 1972 Roe v. Wade decision making most abortions legal.
The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League said the bill "would effectively grant legal personhood to a pre-viable fetus - in direct conflict with Roe - and would inappropriately inject prosecutors and lawmakers into the medical decision-making process."
The Senate has not taken up the bill and is unlikely to do so in the few remaining days of this session. In that event, the measure would die, although the next Congress could come up with its own legislation.
Abortion foes have made little headway in other legislative efforts this session. Both the House and Senate passed bills banning the abortion procedure opponents call "partial birth" because it involved partially extracting the fetus through the birth canal. But they have not sent a compromise bill to President Clinton, who has promised to repeat his vetoes of 1996 and 1997.
The Supreme Court in June also threw out Nebraska's state ban on the procedure, saying it violated women's constitutional rights by imposing an "undue burden" on their decisions to end their pregnancies.
The House has also passed a Canady-backed bill that would make it a crime to harm a fetus during a violent act against a pregnant woman. But again the Senate, generally more reluctant to take up abortion-related measures, has not acted.
Members voting against the latest bill were Reps. Julia Carson, D-Ind., Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., John Dingell, D-Mich., Jesse Jackson, D-Ill., Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., Chaka Fattah, D-Penn., Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. and Mel Watt, D-N.C.
Three members voted present - Reps. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill. and Louise McIntosh Slaughter, D-N.Y.