The 52-40 vote to end a ban on any abortions in overseas military hospitals, in effect since 1996, also puts the Senate on a collision track with the administration, which supports the ban, as well as the House. That chamber voted 215-202 last month to retain the prohibition.
Both houses' votes came on amendments to a $393 billion defense bill for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, and the issue must be worked out when the two sides meet to consider the final shape of the bill.
Senate opponents of the no-abortions rule, led by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, argued that the 100,000 servicewomen and military dependents abroad should not be denied access to safe and legal abortions. Constitutional rights are not territorial," Snowe said. "Women who serve their country should be afforded the same rights that women here in America have." "Why is it that Congress would want to punish women who so bravely serve our country overseas?" she asked.
Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., an abortion foe, said lifting the ban would add a "heavy weight" to the defense bill and complicate the House-Senate conference "at a critical time in our nation's history, when we need to speak with one mind and one voice."
"It is going to protract the negotiations, if not even kill the overall Department of Defense authorization bill," added Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. The bill is already shadowed by veto threats from the White House over the Senate's decision to cut outlays for national missile defense and ensure that veterans receiving disability compensation don't lose retirement pay.
"There will be great pressure from the White House to eliminate it in conference," acknowledged Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood. "We will urge the Senate to stand firm: it's simple justice."
The use of public funds for abortions at military hospitals has been banned since the 1970s, and in 1988 the Reagan administration extended that ban to abortions paid for with private money. The Clinton administration lifted the ban on privately funded abortions in 1993, but in 1995 the Republican-led House voted to restore it in the 1996 defense bill. Since then the House has annually rejected attempts to lift the ban. Language to end the ban cleared the Senate in 1998 but was dropped in negotiations with the House.
Exceptions to the ban are made when the life of the mother is endangered, in which case the government will pay for the abortion, and for rape and incest, when the mother can pay for an abortion at a military hospital. Supporters of the current policy argued that even if a woman were to use her money, many Americans still object to the use of military facilities, built and operated with public funds, for abortions. They said women are free to return home for medical treatment.
Murray said military women seeking abortions must obtain approval from commanding officers for leave to travel home, a process that compromises a woman's privacy rights. The other alternative is to obtain an abortion in the host country, where doctors may not speak English and may lack the training of American doctors, she said.
Besides Snowe, four Republicans voted to lift the ban: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Ted Stevens of Alaska. Two Democrats - Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Harry Reid of Nevada - voted to keep it.