Abortion opponents set for legislative push

New Republican Senate could mean more limits on medical procedures

January 02, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Galvanized by the Republican takeover of the Senate, opponents of abortion are preparing a major push for new abortion restrictions in the next Congress, beginning with a ban on the type of medical procedure they call "partial-birth abortion."

Abortion opponents say they will also push for several other measures already passed by the Republican-controlled House, including a bill making it a crime to evade parental notification laws by taking a minor across state lines for an abortion, and legislation making it a separate crime to harm a fetus during an attack on a pregnant woman. Another measure they seek would allow hospitals and other health care providers to refuse to perform abortions without fear of penalty, such as the loss of federal funds.

Supporters of abortion rights acknowledge that they face a much tougher fight without Democrats sympathetic to their cause in control of the White House, the Senate or the House.

At the center of this year's legislative maneuvering will be Sen. Bill Frist, who replaced Sen. Trent Lott as majority leader last month. While a few social conservatives have voiced concern about his record, Frist is considered a strong ally by the National Right to Life Committee, which has given him a 100 percent rating on major votes for the last six years.

Ken Connor, president of the conservative Family Research Council, argued that Frist may be particularly effective for the anti-abortion cause because of his background as a surgeon. "When he speaks on these issues he does so with great authority, great expertise, and now with great clout."

Abortion rights advocates agree that Frist "may have a different persona, but his views and his record are indistinguishable from Trent Lott's" on abortion, as Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, put it.

A spokesman for Frist says the senator is working on the timing and substance of the year's legislative agenda, but noted the Tennessee Republican has a long history of supporting the "partial birth" ban.

Many strategists on both sides say they expect that ban, which passed the House in July, to be the first major abortion-related legislation to move through Congress. Douglas Johnson, the legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said there were more than 60 votes for the measure in the Senate - enough to overcome a filibuster - and President Bush has promised repeatedly to sign it.

Enacting such a law would be a milestone for the anti-abortion movement. But abortion-rights groups said they would quickly challenge the ban in courts. The Supreme Court has ruled that several state laws outlawing the practice are unconstitutional, in part because they did not include an exemption allowing the procedure for the sake of a woman's health, and because the procedure itself was too vaguely defined.

Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate leadership and an abortion opponent, said in a recent interview, "We've come back with a rewrite that I think will pass constitutional muster. And I think it's an important line in the sand, although far from the line I would draw."

The latest stage of the abortion struggle begins at an emotional time for both sides: Jan. 22 will mark the 30th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion. Organizing is well under way for the anti-abortion marches and demonstrations that traditionally mark the day, and they are expected to have more significance this year.

Already, speculation abounds on what kind of signal Bush, an ally of the anti-abortion movement, will send to the marchers and the nation at large on that anniversary - how he will juggle the interests of a key conservative constituency with the swing voters who support abortion rights.

Despite the gains of the anti-abortion movement in the recent election, Santorum said recently that, "We still don't have anything I would consider a pro-life majority in the Senate." But he argued that there was a majority for certain restrictions, like the "partial birth ban," which he said have broad support among the American public.

Critics assert that "partial-birth abortion" is a grisly practice that amounts to partially delivering a fetus before aborting it. Such a ban passed Congress twice during the Clinton administration, only to be vetoed at the urging of abortion-rights supporters who asserted the procedure was sometimes necessary to protect a woman's health.

Other legislative priorities for the anti-abortion movement include a broad ban on human cloning, including cloning to create tissue for medical research. Many argue the issue has added urgency after a religious sect last week claimed to have created the first human clone.

Abortion opponents say they are uncertain how many votes the new abortion restrictions - many of which have passed the House - would get in the Senate.

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