Abortion Rights Groups are Winning -- but Don't Know It

August 01, 1993|By JULIE ROVNER

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Why can't abortion rights groups see whe they're ahead?

Talk about not knowing how to win!

To listen to some of the major abortion rights groups as well as pro-abortion-rights women members of the House these days, you'd think the right to abortion is as imperiled as it was last year, when the Supreme Court seemed poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

In fact, the opposite is true, and not only thanks to President Clinton's nomination to the Supreme Court of abortion-rights backer Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The most recent evidence came earlier this week when the Senate approved a bill that would restore to the District of Columbia the city's ability to use locally raised funds to pay for abortions for poor women. It's not the first time the Senate has taken the position; but with a pro-abortion-rights president at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, it's the first time since 1988 that the D.C. budget bill will likely be enacted without the abortion-funding ban.

Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, the Senate's action Tuesday was more the rule than the exception; indeed the first six months of the Clinton presidency have proved remarkably successful for abortion-rights backers. Consider:

* The so-called "gag rule" that barred abortion counseling and referrals in federally funded family planning clinics is effectively no more, struck from the books by President Clinton on his second full day in office. A bill to codify Mr. Clinton's action and affirmatively allow such counseling and referrals passed the House in March and is awaiting Senate consideration.

* In June Mr. Clinton signed into law an authorizing bill for the National Institutes of Health that overturned the Reagan-Bush administration ban on research using tissue from aborted fetuses.

* Also by executive decree, Mr. Clinton reversed a 1988 Defense Department directive that forbade abortions from being performed in overseas military medical facilities, even if the woman paid for the procedure herself.

* The House of Representatives in June passed fiscal 1994 spending bills for the District of Columbia and the federal work force that would eliminate long-standing bans on the District's using local tax dollars for abortions and coverage of abortion in federal employee health plans, respectively.

Even abortion backers' most recent "loss," the House vote in June to continue to bar funding for most Medicaid abortions, isn't quite the setback portrayed at the time. In fact, while the House did approve restrictions on Medicaid abortions, those restrictions are less stringent than the ones in effect for 12 years. Abortion-rights groups were deeply disappointed with the outcome, primarily because they expected the spending bill for the Department of Health and Human Services to emerge from the House with no restrictions on abortion funding. And it would have lacked restrictions had anti-abortion forces not pulled off a parliamentary miracle with the aid of a 1908 precedent. But it's worth pointing out that if the House had passed the bill absent abortion language, it would have been the first time since 1974, the year after Roe made abortion a right.

In fact, the language added to this year's bill by longtime anti-abortion leader Henry Hyde, R-Ill., allows funding for abortions in cases of rape or incest, the first time the bill has left the House with those exceptions since 1978.

(Funding of abortions in cases of rape and incest was permitted until 1981, but only because the language was always added by the more pro-abortion-rights Senate. Since then, however, funding has been limited to situations "where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term.")

Ironically, the last time the House debated the same issue, the sides were reversed. It was abortion-rights forces sponsoring the language to allow payment for abortions in cases of rape and incest, and abortion opponents who sought to limit payment for abortions to cases of life endangerment.

"Rape and incest are tragedies," said Mr. Hyde during that debate. "But why visit on the second victim, the unborn child that is the product of that criminal act, capital punishment?"

This year, however, anti-abortion forces performed an organized retreat, then declared themselves victorious. Those on the other side were too busy licking their own wounds to point out the other side's shift in position.

Abortion-rights forces -- at least some of them -- are also upset that the House has yet to take up to so-called Freedom of Choice Act, which seeks to guarantee abortion rights by forbidding states to enact their own restrictions.

Authors of the bill say its purpose is to codify the holdings of Roe vs. Wade; opponents say it would in fact go much farther, blocking states' ability to require parental involvement or deny public funding.

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