New York Times, December 2, 2004
Looks Much Better to Abortion Foes
DATELINE: WASHINGTON, Dec. 1
Abortion opponents have long considered the Senate
to be a daunting roadblock for new abortion
restrictions and conservative judicial nominees,
halting many of the initiatives of a sympathetic
House and a president committed to ''a culture
of life.'' But now, both sides in the abortion
struggle agree, the Senate is changing.
As a result of November's election, the next
Senate will have a bigger, more conservative
Republican majority and several new opponents
of abortion -- including some of the most intense
abortion foes in politics, like Tom Coburn,
a doctor and newly elected senator from Oklahoma,
who campaigned as ''a committed defender of
the sanctity of life in all of its stages.''
With those additions, on top of their gains in
the 2002 election, anti-abortion leaders say
several abortion restrictions previously introduced
on Capitol Hill have a better chance for full
consideration and passage.
These include an array of incremental, carefully
focused restrictions, like a bill to make it
a federal crime to circumvent state parental
consent laws by transporting a minor across
state lines for an abortion.
''Certainly, we'd hope to see some action on
some of the bills blocked in the Senate in
the past, either by filibuster or other forms
of procedural obstruction,'' said Douglas Johnson,
legislative director of the National Right
to Life Committee, who cautioned against overestimating
his side's gains.
Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood
Federation of America, countered: ''The Senate
is much worse than it was before the election
for reproductive health and rights. It was
already pretty bad, and it's definitely even
The change in the Senate is not just about the
increase in the number of anti-abortion votes,
which may amount to only a handful. In general,
anti-abortion leaders think the political tide
is gradually turning their way. They had already
achieved a major legislative success in the
last Congress, with the passage of the Partial-Birth
Abortion Ban Act of 2003. They are euphoric
over the results of last month's elections,
including the defeat of Senator Tom Daschle
of South Dakota, the Democratic leader who
became the symbol for conservatives of Democratic
''obstructionism,'' particularly of judicial
Perhaps most important, the anti-abortion movement
now faces the prospect of a possibly significant
turnover on the Supreme Court with a strong
ally in the White House and a Republican majority
in the Senate that will grow to 55 votes from
Already, the movement is flexing its muscles.
Its allies inserted an anti-abortion provision
into the omnibus appropriations bill last week,
which would withhold federal money from states
and local governments if they require health
care providers or insurance companies to perform,
pay for or provide referrals for abortion services.
At the same time, anti-abortion groups conducted
a high-profile and successful campaign to get
Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania,
a supporter of abortion rights who is in line
to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee,
to promise speedy votes on President Bush's
Anti-abortion leaders say they are simply seeking
common-sense restrictions and regulations that
have broad support from the American public
and are long overdue. ''The country is moving
pro-life,'' said Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas
Republican who is a leading abortion opponent.
''I just think you're seeing that reality now
reflected in the politics.''
Abortion opponents say there is particularly
strong support for one of their newest legislative
initiatives, the proposed Unborn Child Pain
Awareness Act, which would require women seeking
abortions after 20 weeks to be told that Congress
has determined that the fetus can feel pain
and to be offered pain-relieving medication
''It would be my hope that a number of women,
once informed of the pain in the womb that
the child will experience, will hopefully say,
'I just don't want to do this,''' said Mr.
Brownback, a sponsor of the legislation. ''But
if they do choose to move forward, at least
it's more humane for the child.''
Abortion opponents hope that such legislation,
like the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban of 2003,
educates the public about what they assert
is a much-too-unfettered right to terminate
pregnancies. The ''partial-birth ban,'' aimed
at a particular type of second- and third-trimester
abortion, was struck down by lower federal
courts, but is now on appeal.
The exact political contours of the new Senate
will become clear only when it begins to vote
on these measures. Mr. Johnson, a veteran in
the abortion struggle, estimates his side has
gained ''roughly three votes,'' depending on
the specifics of the legislation. Abortion-rights
lobbyists say the net pickup for the anti-abortion
side is probably only one seat, since some
of the new abortion opponents are replacing
senators who also opposed the practice.
But the strengthening of Republican control and
the addition of senators for whom the abortion
issue ranks very high, like Mr. Coburn, Representative
David Vitter of Louisiana and former Representative
John Thune of South Dakota, could have a deeper
effect on the Senate than a simple vote count
In fact, several leaders of the abortion-rights
movement indicated in interviews that they
felt very much on the defensive these days,
both in terms of fending off new legislation
and in dealing with the prospect of a Supreme
Court nomination fight, given new urgency by
the illness of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
''We are all expecting a battle on the Supreme
Court,'' said Nancy Keenan, the new president
of Naral Pro-Choice America. And, she added,
''The number of anti-choice restrictions will
be increasing. We'll be fighting that day in
and day out.''
Many analysts speculate that Mr. Bush could end
up appointing as many as three justices to
the Supreme Court; depending on the justices
replaced, that could have major implications
for Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision
that declared a constitutional right to abortion.
Mr. Bush said during the campaign that he would
not impose a ''litmus test'' on his nominees,
but his conservative supporters clearly expect
him to name someone who opposes Roe.
Abortion-rights advocates say their primary challenge
these days is to highlight the stakes. They
argue that the anti-abortion movement's incremental
restrictions are just part of a long-term plan
to marginalize and undermine the constitutional
right. ''This issue has to be brought to the
American people in a very straightforward,
clear way,'' said Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat
of California, an abortion-rights advocate.
''All these other things that they've been doing
is dancing around the basic issue, which is
they want Roe v. Wade repealed and to take
away a woman's right to choose,'' Ms. Boxer
added. To underscore that point, she and Senator
Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, said they planned
to seek a vote next year on a Senate resolution
expressing support for the Roe decision. It
would be nonbinding, but it would force senators
to take a stand on the fundamental issue, the
Mr. Harkin obtained a vote on a similar resolution
in March 2003, when the Senate endorsed Roe
by a vote of 52 to 46. Ms. Boxer said it might
not get a majority next year. Naral Pro-Choice
America now considers 50 members of the new
Senate to be ''anti-choice,'' 21 to be ''mixed''
on the issue, and 29 to be fully ''pro-choice.''
In the previous Senate, that Naral tally was
49 ''anti-choice,'' 22 ''mixed'' and 29 fully
Abortion-rights groups say they are convinced
the public is with them on the basic right.
Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has
worked for Naral, said: ''No one can deny that
the Senate has gotten harder for proponents
of abortion rights. That's undeniable. However,
I don't believe the country fundamentally changed
on this issue.''
Still, abortion-rights veterans are uneasy as
they head into the new Congress. ''I have a
sense of deep foreboding,'' said Senator Dianne
Feinstein, Democrat of California, ''unless
the choice movement is able to once again come
alive, and clearly define what a woman's right
to choose means.''
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