Washington, Jan. 15--President Bush pleased anti-abortion activists yesterday by declaring a National Sanctity of Human Life Day and pledging his administration's commitment to "build a culture that respects life."

"As we seek to improve quality of life, overcome illness and promote vital medical research, my administration will continue to honor our country's founding ideals of equal dignity and equal rights for every American," Bush said in a document that enacts no change in policy or program. "By working together to protect the weak, the imperfect and the unwanted, we affirm a culture of hope and help ensure a brighter future for all."

The six Democratic candidates for president, meanwhile, have agreed to appear together for the first time in the campaign to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision removing restrictions on abortion.

The Democratic candidates' decision to attend the fund-raising dinner here next Tuesday reflects a growing consensus among Democrats and some Republicans that abortion rights could prove to be a central issue in the 2004 presidential election.

The dinner, for Naral Pro-Choice America is one of a series of events being sponsored by anti- and pro-abortion rights groups next week to either celebrate or mourn the narrow ruling of 1973. Asked whether a similar invitation had been extended to Bush, Kate Michelman, the president of Naral, responded: "No, no, he's anti-choice. We wouldn't invite George Bush. No. No."

Bush yesterday heralded the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act he signed last year, which amends the legal definitions of "person," "human being," "child" and "individual" to include any fetus that survives an abortion procedure. Bush also underscored his administration's efforts to champion "compassionate alternatives" to abortion, such as promoting maternity group homes, encouraging abstinence and adoption and passing parental-notification and waiting-period laws. He called unborn children "those without the voice and power to defend their own rights." But Bush stopped short of condemning abortion -- or the cause of abortion rights activists -- outright.

He proclaimed Sunday National Sanctity of Human Life Day, urging Americans to mark the occasion at home or in places of worship, to help others in need and to "reaffirm our commitment to respecting the life and dignity of every human being."

The six-paragraph document was enthusiastically received by anti-abortion activists, who said it precisely summarized the philosophy behind their movement. "This is exactly where we're at," said Darla St. Martin, associate executive director of National Right to Life. "It helps people to understand our cause. It helps people to understand why we are working so hard to defend unborn children." The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League did not immediately return a call for comment.

Bush's declaration yesterday came as a new survey indicated the abortion rate among U.S. women has dropped to its lowest level since the mid-1970s.

Abortion specialists said the 5 percent drop from 1996 to 2000 probably reflected an improved range of birth control options, including emergency hormone doses within days after sex to prevent pregnancy. They also cited the greater sexual caution practiced in the age of AIDS in the survey to be released today by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. The number of providers who performed surgical abortions also fell.

Researchers noted that there were 21.3 abortions for every 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. In total, 1.31 million abortions were performed nationwide in 2000, meaning that about 2 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age had abortions, while more than 6 percent gave birth, the survey found.

The survey is one of the first to account for the number of abortions using mifepristone, or RU-486, since it became available in September 2000. The study estimates that more than 37,000 abortions were performed using pills in the first six months of 2001.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute is a non-profit research and education organization that focuses on reproductive and sexual issues. It includes in its mission the defense of "reproductive choices," but also maintains that its data gathering and analysis are reliable and non-partisan.

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