Abortion foes see clout constantly diminishing ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

April 01, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's decision to ask Congress to ditch the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortions, is the latest blow to abortion foes who have seen their political clout steadily eroded by a combination of election results and public sentiment.

In 1989, when the Supreme Court in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services ruled by 5-4 that states could impose limitations on abortion rights affirmed in 1973 in Roe vs. Wade, the anti-abortion forces thought the tide had turned for them.

Instead, the decision energized abortion-rights groups, rallying millions of women to their cause as they painted the Webster decision as the foot in the door to the eventual overturning of Roe. They responded on three fronts -- demonstrations, lobbying in state legislatures against restrictive initiatives, and at the ballot box.

The demonstrations provided the most visible evidence up to that time of the latent strength of the self-styled pro-choice forces. Through the history of the abortion debate, the anti-abortion side had been much more visible, vocal and categorical with its declaration that "abortion is murder."

The Supreme Court appointments of David Souter in 1990 and especially of Clarence Thomas in 1991 provided further rallying points for the abortion-rights forces, energizing them anew as they saw a greater danger that Roe would be overturned.

When the supposedly more anti-abortion court subsequently reviewed a restrictive abortion law in Pennsylvania, it did uphold some limits but failed to overturn Roe. The self-styled pro-life forces were dismayed.

Meanwhile, in state legislative races around the country, more pro-choice women were running and winning, and then came 1992, rightly labeled the Year of the Woman. On the day pro-choice candidate Bill Clinton won the presidency, 48 women were elected to the House, most of them pro-choice, and five to the Senate, all of them pro-choice. Also, of all state legislators, 20.4 percent were now women.

One of Clinton's first executive actions was to lift the "gag rule" that under the last two Republican presidents barred abortion counseling in federally funded medical facilities. Republican Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, a staunch pro-lifer, called Clinton's move "the ultimate wake-up call" to abortion foes.

Now the president's decision to drop the language barring use of federal funds for abortions, written into Medicaid legislation 16 years ago by Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, has the PTC anti-abortion forces fighting a rear-guard action in what will be a noisy and bitter, but probably losing, fight on the issue.

They already have their hands full with aggressive action by the pro-choice side to enact the Freedom of Choice Act that would codify Roe vs. Wade, a drive helped not only by the election of more women to Congress but also by constituent pressures for it. Polls consistently show that choice has become the majority viewpoint of Americans on abortion.

Further complicating the position of the anti-abortion forces is the recent fatal shooting of a doctor outside his abortion clinic in Florida. That action is likely to assure passage of another bill allowing use of civil rights laws to protect pregnant women entering such clinics.

In all, the so-called right-to-life movement has seen much better days, and not the least of its problems is the anticipated nomination by Clinton of an abortion-rights defender to the Supreme Court to replace the retiring conservative Justice Byron White.

At the state level, much of the effort of the anti-abortion side is no longer in seeking to ban abortion but to impose restrictions.

A new study by Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics concludes that adversity may help the pro-lifers to mobilize, as the Webster decision did for their opponents. "Life may not be as easy for pro-choicers," the study suggests, because "there is the possibility of complacency as supporters mobilized by Webster perceive the restrictions as not so bad." The drive for the Freedom of Choice Act, however, shows no signs of such complacency as the pro-choicers press on, knowing that veto power threatened or wielded against them for 12 years is no longer in unfriendly hands.

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