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Democrats take a go-slow approach on abortion law

Abortion foes are bracing to fight major changes. But the majority party doesn't seem eager to pursue an expansive agenda that would include codifying the right established by Roe vs. Wade.

February 10, 2009|James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — When Barack Obama campaigned for president, he promised to enact legislation to prohibit the states from limiting the right to abortion. Now that he is in the White House and Democratic majorities are ensconced in Congress, opponents of abortion rights are bracing for that and other major changes to abortion laws.

But there are indications that what those groups dread most and some liberal voters eagerly anticipate as the rewards of victory may not come to pass -- at least not yet.

Democrats on Capitol Hill say that although they are committed to reversing several Bush administration policies on abortion rights and family planning, they may hold off on pursuing the kind of expansive agenda feared by social conservatives.

Significant numbers of moderate Democrats, particularly in the House, oppose abortion or are not in favor of sweeping changes, preferring a more incremental approach.

And any large-scale effort involving something as polarizing as abortion requires spending political capital, something the Obama White House needs in abundance at the moment to ensure the survival of its economic policies.

"We deal in reality," said Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "You have to be pragmatic, realistic and, in the end, strategic."

Keenan said that solid pro-choice majorities that could ensure passage of ambitious abortion-rights legislation don't exist. "The votes just aren't there," she said.

But the anti-abortion camp is not convinced. Topping its list of concerns is what's known as the Freedom of Choice Act, first introduced in the early 1990s. The legislation would codify the constitutional right to abortion that was established by the Supreme Court in 1973 and prevent states from limiting that right.

While the scope of the measure remains the subject of some debate, anti-abortion activists insist it would do away with waiting periods, parental notification laws and perhaps force religious hospitals to perform abortion procedures.

"The antennas are way up in the pro-life community," said William Donahue, president of the Catholic League. "I've never seen anything like it. It's like the community is on high alert."

That's led to a postcard drive by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that has been papering parishes, schools and civic groups for weeks. A similar drive helped torpedo abortion legislation in 1993, the last time Democrats had control of the White House, Senate and House.

There are signs, however, that the administration is in no mood for a politically draining fight over abortion. The White House persuaded Democratic leaders in the House last month to drop a provision from the economic stimulus package that would have increased Medicaid funding for family planning services.

At the same time, Democratic leaders on the Hill are taking a go-slow approach. The office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a past sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act, says there are no plans to reintroduce the bill in the immediate future. And Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, said the bill "is not our top priority right now."

Instead, Democrats are concentrating on rolling back Bush administration policies on abortion and contraception. Obama has already acted to revise the "Mexico City Policy," which prevented international health organizations receiving U.S. aid from promoting or providing abortion services as a means of family planning.

The administration is also expected to scuttle a Department of Health and Human Services rule enacted shortly before President Bush left office that allows healthcare workers to refuse to engage in any practice that violates their "religious beliefs or moral convictions." Critics say it could be used to keep patients from receiving information about abortion services or contraception.

"President Obama is committed to protecting a woman's right to choose, and he'll work to ensure that reproductive freedom is protected," said Reid Cherlin, a White House spokesman.

DeGette is a sponsor of the Prevention First Act, which would increase federal funding for family planning, promote comprehensive sex education and expand women's access to contraception. Democrats are likely also to attempt to de-fund sexual education programs that only advocate abstinence, which they say have failed.

And some action is expected soon on lifting the Bush administration's ban on embryonic stem-cell research. Although Obama could overturn the ban by executive order, it appears more likely that Congress will lift the ban through legislation.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director for National Right to Life, said an early test of Democrats' intentions will come during the budget process, when a measure known as the Hyde Amendment must be renewed.

The 33-year-old amendment bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortions for low-income women. It has routinely been renewed, often without a roll call vote.

"We think the Hyde Amendment is at risk for the first time in many years," Johnson said.

But as with the Freedom of Choice Act, Democrats and abortion-rights advocates don't seem ready to push that battle.

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joliphant@tribune.com

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