Step-by-step strategy pays off for abortion foes

Bush signing seen as part of battle to overturn Roe

November 06, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - President Bush's signing of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act yesterday was a moment of political triumph for the anti-abortion movement, a reflection of its influence with a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican president.

But it was also, leading abortion foes say, a validation of the movement's long-term strategy of incrementalism, restricting abortion step by step as part of the larger battle to turn public opinion against Roe vs. Wade, the sweeping 1973 Supreme Court decision that recognized a constitutional right to abortion.

Regardless of how the courts ultimately rule on the "partial birth" legislation, several advocates described the long fight for its passage as a "teaching moment" that will endure.

"When I tell people what Roe vs. Wade means, as far as how broad the right of abortion is in this country, even people who are quote, pro-choice, will say, `That's not right,'" said Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a leader in the fight for the bill, which bans a type of abortion used in the second and third trimester.

If the legislation is overturned by the courts, abortion opponents said, it would serve as another object lesson in what they described as "judicial tyranny."

"Nothing can erase this moment in history," said another activist, Cathy Cleaver Ruse, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "People will know that in November 2003 the majority of Americans did everything they could to ban this procedure."

Abortion rights supporters were beginning a grim counteroffensive: legal challenges around the country, a new advertising campaign warning of an ominous knock on the door of a doctor's office and vows to galvanize abortion rights voters in next year's elections.

Kate Michelman, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, said she believes that Bush's signing of the legislation yesterday would serve as a "wakeup call" that will galvanize voters who support abortion rights. "The American public has to some degree become relaxed in the view that we can't lose this right," she said.

Abortion rights advocates have found themselves repeatedly on the defensive on this issue. There are limits to the influence of the anti-abortion movement, which its strategists are the first to recognize.

"I've been in this movement 30 years," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, "and all of us would have loved to see more progress sooner. But we realize that dealing with the high bar of a Supreme Court decision is a herculean task."

Which, some say, leads to the ultimate incrementalist strategy - changing the high court, seat by seat.

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