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Energized Conservatives Seek Wider Fetal Rights

High on antiabortion activists' agenda are bills on crimes against the pregnant and cloning, some key elections and judicial appointments.

October 26, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Even before President Bush signs into law the first federal ban on an abortion procedure in 30 years, social conservatives are moving on several other legislative and political fronts in their decades-long campaign to establish what they call the unborn's right to life.

Their agenda for the next year: pass more bills to protect fetuses, stop human cloning and hinder abortions; confirm pending nominees who are sympathetic to the antiabortion movement to federal trial and appellate courts; and, with an eye to potential future Supreme Court vacancies, reelect Bush and expand the slender Republican Senate majority.

"We're on the offensive," said Carol Tobias, political director for the National Right to Life Committee. "I've been saying for many years that we're eventually going to win this battle and protect unborn children."

Final congressional approval Tuesday of a law banning the procedure known medically as "intact dilation and extraction," but to those who oppose it as "partial-birth" abortion, was just "one step in that direction," Tobias said. "This has certainly grabbed the attention of the American public."

Abortion-rights advocates, meanwhile, are seeking to regroup after the defections of many congressional Democrats on the "partial-birth" bill spotlighted vulnerabilities in their political coalition. To influence the 2004 presidential campaign, they say, they plan to run television advertisements attacking Bush in Washington and in Iowa and New Hampshire -- early caucus and primary states -- when the president signs the bill in the near future. It cleared Congress with decisive majorities in the House and the Senate.

Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said antiabortion activists had seized the opportunity created this year by unified Republican rule in Washington.

"It's very rare that they have the presidency, the House and the Senate all under their control at the same time," Michelman said. "That's why they will push hard to continue to make legislative gains. If they remain in control of all three institutions, including the presidency, for the next five years, on the judicial front they will make enormous gains, and on the legislative front, it's open season."

To be sure, both sides tend to hype the ups and downs in the long-running ideological fight over abortion. Their supercharged rhetoric is intended to prime activists to give money and help turn out voters in elections, even though Roe vs. Wade has been the law of the land for more than three decades and could well remain so. Nonetheless, the end of the eight-year "partial-birth" debate in Congress was a major milestone because it enabled lawmakers, Bush and the Democratic presidential candidates to turn to the next battles over abortion rights and restrictions.

Now atop the antiabortion legislative agenda in Congress is a bill known as the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act." The measure would recognize a fetus or an embryo in a uterus as a distinct victim of a crime if it is injured or killed in an attack on a pregnant woman that is also a federal crime. Fifteen states already say the unborn can be victims of a homicide at any stage in a pregnancy; 13 others, including California, say the unborn can be victims for at least part of a pregnancy, according to the National Right to Life Committee.

Abortion rights advocates, though, are battling the measure in Congress because they see it as an attempt to codify "fetal rights" on the federal level and to help lay the groundwork for a future Supreme Court ruling that might overturn Roe vs. Wade. The bill passed the House in 1999 and in 2001 with significant bipartisan majorities. Each time it died in the Senate. But congressional Republican leaders say they expect to try again in the House and the Senate early next year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed an alternative that would enhance criminal penalties for violence against pregnant women but would not define a fetus or embryo as a separate federal crime victim.

Another bill that could be debated in the coming year would ban human cloning. The House passed a complete human cloning ban for a second time in February. The Senate, divided between those who would ban all cloning and those who would ban it only for reproductive purposes, has not acted. The connection of this bill to the abortion debate is tangential, but many antiabortion activists oppose all cloning because they say that, like abortion, it can lead to the destruction of human embryos.

Antiabortion activists are pushing at least two other significant bills that have passed the House in recent years. One would make it a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion if such aid circumvents state law requiring parental notification or court authorization. Another would expand legal protections for health-care providers and organizations that decline all involvement in abortions.

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