Washington – When Barack Obama was campaigning for president, he promised to enact legislation to prohibit states from limiting the right to abortion. Now that Obama is in the White House and solid Democratic majorities are ensconced in Congress, opponents of abortion rights have been bracing for that and other major changes to abortion laws.
But there are indications that what those groups dread most and what some liberal voters eagerly anticipate as the rewards of victory may not come to pass – at least not yet. Democrats on Capitol Hill say that while they are committed to reversing several Bush administration policies with regard to abortion rights and family planning, they may hold off on pursuing the kind of expansive agenda feared by social conservatives.

Despite gains in the House and Senate in last year’s elections, there are still significant numbers of moderate Democrats – particularly in the House – who either oppose abortion altogether or are not in favor of sweeping changes and favor a more incremental approach. And any large-scale effort involving something as polarizing as abortion necessitates spending political capital, something the Obama White House needs in abundance to ensure the survival of its economic policies.
“We deal in reality,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “You have to be pragmatic, realistic and, in the end, strategic.”
Keenan said that solid majorities that back abortion rights that could ensure passage of ambitious legislation don’t exist. “The votes just aren’t there,” she said.
But the anti-abortion camp is not convinced. Topping its list of concerns is the Freedom of Choice Act, first introduced nearly 20 years ago. To abortion-rights supporters, the legislation would codify the constitutional right to abortion that was established by the Supreme Court in 1973 and prevent states from limiting that right.
While the scope of the measure remains the subject of some debate, anti-abortion activists insist it would do away with waiting periods and parental notification laws – and perhaps even force religious hospitals to perform abortions.
“The antennas are way up in the pro-life community,” said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s like the community is on high alert.”
That has led to a postcard drive launched by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that has been hitting schools, churches and civic organizations for weeks. A similar drive helped torpedo abortion legislation in 1993, the last time Democrats had control of the White House, the Senate and the House.
There are signs the Obama administration is in no mood for a politically draining fight over abortion. The White House persuaded Democratic leaders in the House last month to drop a provision from the economic stimulus package that would have increased Medicaid funding for family planning services.
At the same time, Democratic leaders on the Hill are taking a go-slow approach. The office of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a past sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act, says there are no plans to reintroduce the bill in the immediate future.
She said Obama’s victory combined with the current makeup of Congress and the Supreme Court means that abortion rights are “not in immediate danger.”
Instead, Democrats are concentrating on rolling back Bush administration policies on abortion and contraception. Obama already has acted to revise the Mexico City Policy, also known as the “global gag rule,” which prevented international health organizations receiving U.S. aid from promoting or providing abortion services as a means of family planning.
The administration also is expected to scuttle a Department of Health and Human Services rule enacted shortly before President George W. Bush left office that allows health-care workers to refuse to engage in any practice that violates their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.” Critics say it could be used to keep patients from receiving information about abortion services or contraception.
Chicago Tribune
(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.
More from Beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad