Abortion rights advocates said they would go to court to stop what they said was a dangerous incursion against the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalising abortion.
The Senate voted 64-34 on Tuesday to ban a form of abortion, carried out in the second or third trimester, in which a foetus is partially delivered before being aborted. Mr Bush has urged Congress to get the legislation to his desk.
“This is very important legislation that will end an abhorrent practice and continue to build a culture of life in America,” he said. “I look forward to signing it into law.”
That signature would end a legislative crusade that began when Republicans won the ‘House’ in 1995. Bill Clinton twice vetoed similar bills, saying they lacked an exception to protect the health of the mother, and, in the first year of the Bush administration, a Democratic-controlled Senate stopped its advancement.
In the final Senate vote, 17 Democrats joined 47 Republicans to support the ban. Three Republicans voted against the legislation.
With the outcome never in doubt, three groups supporting abortion rights prepared suits to stop the law coming into effect and challenge its constitutionality.
Talcott Camp, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the case could take two to three years to work its way through the courts. The ACLU will represent the National Abortion Federation in its lawsuit.
There was a wide divergence of views on what the procedure encompasses and how frequently it is used, but the opposing sides agreed the legislation was of major consequence.
“Today, we have reached a significant victory, as we continue to build a more compassionate society and a culture that values every human life,” said Republican Senator Rick Santorum, the bill’s sponsor.
Senate majority leader, Republican Bill Frist, a heart surgeon, said the ban could save the lives of thousands of babies.
“I can say, without equivocation, that partial birth abortion is brutal, it is barbaric, it is morally offensive and it is outside the mainstream practice of medicine,” he said.
Another physician-politician, Democratic presidential candidate, Howard Dean, said it was the women in need of the procedure whose lives were put at risk by Tuesday’s Senate vote.
“As a physician, I am outraged that the Senate has decided it is qualified to practice medicine,” said Mr Dean, a former governor of Vermont. He said the legislation “will endanger the lives of countless women”.
Other opponents decried a bill they said would criminalise a safe medical practice and subject doctors who violate it to up to two years in prison.
The bill, “for the first time in history, bans a medical procedure without making any exception for the health of the woman,” said Senator Barbara Boxer.