Reporting from Washington — As thousands of antiabortion activists streamed into the nation's capital to protest Saturday's 38th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the politics of abortion are heating up again on Capitol Hill.
The election of the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives swept in scores of social conservatives, reenergizing the antiabortion movement in Congress.
At the same time, as the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 begins to take shape, potential candidates are jockeying for favor with social conservatives.
One, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), ignited a small-scale firestorm last week by invoking race while criticizing President Obama's position on abortion.
"The question is — and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer: Is that human life a person under the Constitution?" Santorum asked in an interview with CNSNews. "Well if that person, human life is not a person, then I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'We are going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"
Santorum later clarified his remarks, saying he was referring to Obama's African American heritage in a civil rights context.
"When I use the word 'black,' all of a sudden it gives people a reason to say, 'Ah, he's trying to make some sort of racial comment.' I was not," Santorum told Fox News on Thursday. "I was trying to talk about a historical fact about how the Constitution was interpreted and how it's interpreted today."
Also on Thursday, the co-chairmen of the House Pro-Life Caucus, Reps. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) and Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), introduced two bills that would permanently prohibit any federal, taxpayer-funded support for the procedure, a provision that currently has to be renewed annually. The legislation would also prevent women who take advantage of the health insurance subsidies in the Democratic healthcare law from using the benefits to obtain an abortion.
"Abortion is not healthcare," Smith said. "Our new bill is designed to permanently end any U.S. government financial support for abortion, whether it be direct funding or by tax credits or any other subsidy."
That provision is similar to the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the healthcare bill that passed in the House last year but didn't make it into the final law. However, the Obama administration insists that an executive order signed after the law passed prohibits any federal funding for abortion.
"We had an opportunity during the healthcare debate to include the Stupak language, which would have made clear in law that taxpayer funding of elective abortion is prohibited," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said on Thursday. "That did not occur, and clearly there's an awful lot of doubt as to where the administration really is on this issue."
Abortion-rights activists say the new legislation is more far-reaching than the Stupak-Pitts language and attempts to restrict women from using their own private insurance to pay for abortions by depriving them of a tax deduction. Smith "opened a new front in this battle by introducing a bill intended to end private health insurance coverage for virtually all abortions," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. "Smith's bill goes far beyond any anti-choice ban on private health insurance coverage ever introduced in Congress."
Any House bill restricting abortions would face a tougher path in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But Boehner said his new GOP majority was committed to pressing the issue.
"Our members feel very strongly about the sanctity of human life," Boehner said. "We listened to the American people. We made a commitment to the American people in our Pledge to America. And we're continuing to fulfill our commitment."