Gannett News Service (US), January 8, 2007

Abortion-rights supporters to play offense in new Congress

By FAITH BREMNER

Abortion-rights supporters are hoping for a political turnaround this year thanks to their victories in the November elections and the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress.

For the past six years, those who support abortion rights, easy access to birth control and stem cell research have been on the defensive, thanks to Republican control of Congress and the White House.

During that time, Congress passed legislation that gives embryos and fetuses legal status and outlaws late-term abortions, which opponents call "partial-birth" abortions. The Senate confirmed two new Supreme Court nominees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, over the objections of abortion-rights supporters. President Bush vetoed a bill that would have allowed the federal government to fund embryonic stem cell research.

But voters became fed up with the pro-life agenda when Congress and Bush tried to stop Terri Schiavo's husband from removing her feeding tube and when the South Dakota Legislature passed a law banning all abortions except those to save a mother's life, said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. South Dakota voters overturned the law in November.

"People sat back and said, 'What is the role of government and politicians in those very personal, private medical decisions that we make as families?'" Keenan said. "That's when folks saw the other side overstep."

Her archrival, Judie Brown, co-founder of the American Life League, sharply disagrees. Abortion opponents lost at the ballot box last year because they didn't work hard enough and because they have been settling for politicians who are willing to compromise on abortion, like those who support allowing exceptions in cases of rape and incest, Brown said.

"More and more, people are coming to see the reality of what abortion does to babies and to their mothers," Brown said.

She praised advocates of South Dakota's abortion ban for not backing down in their opposition to nearly all abortions and predicted that they will try again.

"And when they try again, they'll win," Brown said. "The game has just begun as far as we're concerned."

According to Keenan, 23 more abortion-rights supporters joined the House this week and three more in the Senate. Although hard-line abortion foes still make up a slight majority in both houses, abortion-rights supporters should get a respite from legislation hostile to women's access to abortion and birth control, thanks to sympathetic Democratic committee chairmen, Keenan said.

There's even a chance now that Congress will approve legislation that would expand women's access to contraceptives and help prevent unwanted pregnancies, Keenan said.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid opposes abortion but supports increasing access to birth control. In 2005, Reid teamed up with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to introduce legislation that would, among other things, increased federal birth-control funding for low-income women, require insurance companies to pay for contraceptives just as they do for male impotence drugs, and provide funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs.

"We hope that all young people are abstinent," Keenan said. "But if they are not, then you have to provide them with information to make good decisions."

Brown said her group will continue to push for the passage of the Right-to-Life Act. The bill, which would establish equal protection under the Constitution for the right of each born and "pre-born human person" to live, did not get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Congress last year.

Chances are even slimmer that the legislation will go anywhere in the new Congress, but that's OK, Brown said.

"That's not the purpose for this bill," she said. "This bill is one of the most tremendous educational pieces of legislation that we've ever seen. ... It does give us a chance to teach the truth and that is very important.

"It's not whether we win or lose or get it on the floor that matters during this session, it's how many people we are able to convince that this is the way to go."

On the Web:

www.naral.org, NARAL Pro-Choice America.

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