Abortion restraints face challenge by Clinton and in Congress

April 13, 1993|By Timothy M. Phelps | Timothy M. Phelps,Newsday

WASHINGTON -- A majority of Americans, when asked, say they support Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court abortion decision that has led to virtual guerrilla warfare over the meaning of life.

But an even larger majority of Americans say in poll after poll that they endorse a different Supreme Court decision last year that upheld Roe vs. Wade but also upheld the states' right to place restrictions on abortion.

That consensus, the product of 20 years of legal wrangles and the anguish of three essentially anti-abortion Supreme Court justices, is about to be challenged by the Clinton administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress.

The attack on abortion restrictions is being pressed simultaneously on several fronts. Legislation to make abortion a federal right, beyond the reach of the Supreme Court or the states, is already wending its way through the House and Senate. So is another bill to make blockades of abortion clinics a federal crime.

The Clinton administration also has served notice that it will attempt to eliminate the congressional prohibition on federal financing of abortions for poor women and is expected to include coverage for abortion in its proposals on national health care, due next month. At the same time, it has decided to allow abortions to be performed in military hospitals and to fund international population planning groups that support abortion.

Some congressional moderates on the abortion issue fear the proposals may go further than what Congress and the American people will support. Yet compromise may be difficult to achieve, because some abortion rights groups, including the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union, have said they will oppose the legislation if it contains any restrictions designed to appease moderates.

Freshman Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., is typical of an emerging group of members who call themselves abortion rights supporters but back some restrictions. Congressional staffs say this group is critical to passage of the abortion rights program.

"The purists' argument is: Why compromise? Let's fight the fight; let's fight for unrestricted abortions," Mr. Lazio said. "I don't believe that's what the American people want or the vast majority of people who believe in choice want."

Mr. Lazio opposes federal funding of abortions for poor women except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. He supports the proposal to put the right to an abortion in federal law but thinks states should be allowed to require a minor to notify a parent before obtaining an abortion and to require that a woman wait 24 hours after scheduling an abortion and receiving information on alternatives.

Abortion rights lobbyists think the anti-blockade bill may be the easiest of the initiatives to pass and the funding legislation the most difficult. In the middle lies the Freedom of Choice Act, which in theory is supported by a majority in both houses. But both sides of the issue agree its fate will be decided in a battle of restrictive amendments, a battle for the middle ground.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill say in sweeping language that a state "may not restrict the right of a woman to choose to terminate a pregnancy" before the point at about six months when a fetus becomes viable. After that, abortions could be prohibited unless they are "necessary to protect the life or health of the woman."

That language would appear to invalidate many of the current state laws that restrict abortion, such as the 24-hour waiting period.

Last month, a vaguely worded provision allowing states to require "parental involvement" in a teen-ager's abortion was stricken from the House version through an unusual Judiciary subcommittee alliance between Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D.-N.Y., an abortion-rights advocate, and Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R.-Ill., staunch opponent. Mr. Nadler considered the amendment too strong; Mr. Hyde thought it was too weak.

That change is expected to prompt the House women's caucus to endorse the bill next week, although some version of the provision is expected to be restored when the full committee votes on the measure.

The bills do allow the states to restrict abortions after the point at which the baby could live outside the womb. But they do not allow the states to determine what that point is, leaving it up to each woman's doctor to make a judgment.

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