U.S. President Bill Clinton’s veto of a ban on partial-birth abortions unleashed a storm of protest from church and pro-life groups.

In some of the strongest language directed against the president, critics ranging from the Vatican to the Republican Party described Clinton’s April 10 veto as a brutal attack on human life and as an attempt to win favor with radical pro-abortion elements.

They also say the president’s action removes all doubt as to his support of extreme pro-abortion elements in the U.S. The ban would have been the first limitation on abortion in the U.S. since it was legalized in 1973.

Under a partial-birth abortion procedure, the doctor uses forceps to partially extract a baby feet first from the womb. The baby’s skull is then punctured with surgical scissors to suction out the brain tissue. In many cases, this procedure is committed at 20 weeks pregnancy or later to allow brain cells to be harvested for other uses.

In justifying the veto, Clinton said the procedure is used only when the health of the baby or mother is a risk. Pro-life supporters countered that the procedure is not uncommon and that it is often carried out for the convenience of the abortionist.

Cardinal John O’Connor of New York led the attacks against Clinton’s action.

“We are appalled and gravely disappointed at President Clinton’s veto of legislation which would have banned partial-birth abortions.” Cardinal O’Connor said. “The president’s action disregards substantial majorities of both Houses of Congress, as well as the overwhelming number of Americans who believe society must protect unborn children from such a cruel and horrific death.”

Cardinal O’Connor’s statement was signed by seven other Catholic bishops from New York State.

Several other bishops, including Anthony Pilla, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said the veto “will ensure the continued use of the most heinous act to kill a tiny infant just seconds from taking his or her first breath outside the womb.”

The bishops and other church leaders said the Clinton veto, coupled with recent court decisions supporting doctor-assisted suicide, have moved U.S. society closer to infanticide and “a culture of death.”

Pro Life Action League President Joe Scheidler of Chicago said the Clinton veto has led legislators in New Jersey and elsewhere to throw their support behind partial-birth abortions.

“He claims he is concerned with the health of the mother, but it’s pretty hard to swallow,” Scheidler said. “The veto shows Clinton is fully committed to abortion and to the feminist agenda.”

“Clinton has really dug a hole with this one,” Scheilder said. “We intend to mobilize all our pro-life forces during the (Democrat Party) convention. He’s not going to have an easy time.”