Bush signs ban on late-term abortion Nebraska judge raises constitutional questions WASHINGTON (AP) --President Bush signed legislation Wednesday banning a certain type of abortion, handing the disputed procedure's opponents a long-sought victory even as a federal judge at least partially blocked the new law from taking effect. "For years, a terrible form of violence has been directed against children who are inches from birth while the law looked the other way," Bush said as he signed the ban on a procedure called partial-birth abortion by its critics. "Today at last the American people and our government have confronted the violence and come to the defense of the innocent child." The White House staged the ceremony, before about 400 cheering lawmakers and abortion opponents, at a federal building named for former President Ronald Reagan, a strong supporter of anti-abortion groups. An "Amen" was heard from the audience as Bush sat down at a desk, before a row of American flags, to sign the bill passed last month by Congress. But less than an hour after Bush put his pen to paper, a federal judge in Nebraska sharply questioned the law's constitutionality and issued a limited temporary restraining order against it. U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf said he was concerned that the ban contains no exception if the woman's health is at risk as he issued an injunction applied only to the four doctors who brought the suit. "While it is also true that Congress found that a health exception is not needed, it is, at the very least, problematic whether I should defer to such a conclusion when the Supreme Court has found otherwise," Kopf said. Besides Nebraska, hearings were also being held in San Francisco and New York City Wednesday on similar challenges. Fully aware of the impending legal obstacles, Bush said, to a standing ovation and the longest round of applause during his brief remarks: "The executive branch will vigorously defend this law against any who would try to overturn it in the courts." The president's signature represented an end to a legislative crusade that began after Republicans captured the House in 1995. Former President Clinton twice vetoed similar bills, arguing that they lacked an exception to protect the health of the mother. The law, approved by the House and Senate late last month, prohibits doctors from committing an "overt act" designed to kill a partially delivered fetus and allows no exception if the woman's health is at risk, or if the child would be born with ailments. The procedure, which usually involves puncturing the fetus' skull, is generally performed in the second or third trimester. Aware of its backing among the religious conservatives that make up a key portion of his base of political support, the president declared himself pleased to sign legislation he said would help him and others "build a culture of life" in America. To that end, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president supports additional legislative moves -- which he did not specify -- to further restrict abortion. "This right to life cannot be granted or denied by government, because it does not come from government -- it comes from the creator of life," the president said, receiving another lengthy standing ovation. But Bush is also mindful of the more moderate voters he cannot afford to alienate, and last week repeated a position he offered during his 2000 campaign. He said he would not seek a total ban on abortion because public opinion had not yet shifted to support such a move. The new law is similar to a Nebraska statute struck down by the Supreme Court three years ago and imposes the most far-reaching limits on abortion since the high court in 1973 established a woman's right to end a pregnancy. Supporters argue the law applies only to a procedure done late in pregnancy -- and relatively rarely -- and that the procedure is never necessary to protect the health of the mother. "As Congress has found, the practice is widely regarded within the medical profession as unnecessary, not only cruel to the child, but harmful to the mother and a violation of medical ethics," Bush said. Overly broad language But abortion-rights groups say the law has overly broad language that could criminalize several safe and common procedures, and fear it represents the first step in a larger campaign to eventually bar all abortions. Outside the ceremony, the National Organization for Women conducted a protest of about 50 to 100 activists who chanted and held signs saying "Keep Abortion Legal" and "saveroe.com" -- a Web site named for the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing the procedure. On Capitol Hill, critics urged the courts to declare the ban unconstitutional at a news conference outside the Supreme Court. "President Bush and Congress have no business inserting themselves between American women and their doctors," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York.