Abortion foes applying steady, quiet pressure Pragmatic new tactics strive to make headway, not sweeping change


WASHINGTON -- For years, the abortion fight has been waged with in-your-face protests in front of abortion clinics and with graphic pictures of bloody fetuses.

Now, abortion foes are increasingly relying on a quieter strategy of carefully targeted political pressure. The goal isn't to fundamentally change abortion policy; it is to make gradual, but steady headway -- or make adversaries pay a price if they don't go along.

Judging by the past week's events, the approach is working.

Abortion opponents in Congress wanted to bar aid to international family-planning groups that promote, perform or support abortion with their own money. But President Clinton refused.

So abortion opponents retaliated.

They struck back by withholding votes for a bill expanding Clinton's authority to negotiate trade agreements. Without their support, Clinton couldn't get the last few votes he needed to pass the bill in the House.

They struck back by derailing a painstakingly negotiated plan for Congress to make overdue payments to the United Nations -- just as the Clinton administration is trying to round up U.N. support for tough action against Iraq.

They struck back by blocking money for the International Monetary Fund to shore up weak economies overseas -- just as the administration wanted to help calm jittery international markets.

And, in a related development, they blocked confirmation of Clinton's choice for surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher, because he agrees with Clinton's position on "partial birth" abortions.

As an election year looms, both sides predict that abortion will be injected into all sorts of matters.

"This is going to pop up anywhere as a part of legislation," said Debra Dodson, a researcher at Rutgers University Center for the American Woman and Politics.

"People oftentimes think that the abortion issue isn't relevant to politics today because it's been settled by the Supreme Court, but there are many issues firmly planted in the political realm, and there are a myriad of battles to fight."

With the general parameters of abortion already defined by court decisions and presidential vetoes, the battle has moved away from the extremes of allowing every kind of abortion or ending all abortions, to the middle ground, where both sides can spar over the details of regulations and policies.

"Under this president, incremental gains are about all we can realistically hope for at the federal level, so we are making some progress," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, the nation's largest anti-abortion group.

"No one really thinks we're going to ban abortions anytime soon," said Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University government professor and author of a book on abortion.

So, he said, supporters of abortion rights and abortion opponents are "negotiating around the margins, jockeying for political position, to try to get what they can, when they can."

Right now, the anti-abortionists have the upper hand, buoyed by a Republican-controlled Congress where more than half of the senators and two-thirds of the representatives oppose abortion.

Since Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, 81 abortion-related votes have occurred on the House and Senate floors.

Abortion foes prevailed in 71 of them, according to figures compiled by an abortion-rights group, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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