Division Over Abortion Continues To Deepen Since Webster Ruling

States, the US Congress, and courts traveling contradictory paths

TWO years after the landmark Supreme Court decision allowing state legislatures to cut back on abortion rights, the nation is as torn as ever over the issue.Consider this apparent contradiction: While the US Congress has demonstrated increasing support for abortion rights, state legislatures are one by one instituting restrictions - with some banning virtually all abortions, as is the case in Louisiana, Utah, and the island of Guam. Activists on both sides of the issue are reluctant to issue any declarations of victory, fearful of causing their supporters to become complacent. Rather, they credit each other's ability to shape debate and remind their troops of the battles ahead. "My sense of the pro-life people is that they need to do a lot more education work on [Capitol] Hill," says Helen Alvare, director of planning and information for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. Since the Supreme Court's July 3, 1989, decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which let stand restrictions on abortion in Missouri, "we have learned that legal abortion is even more deeply a part of the culture than we expected," says Ms. Alvare.

Years of complacency Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), says that when the Supreme Court issued its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling guaranteeing abortion as a constitutional right, "pro-choice America believed the debate was over" and fell "asleep at the switch." "The fact is that the anti-choice minority saw the Supreme Court decision as a call to arms and they have been waging political battles in the states for 18 years," says Ms. Michelman. "They have worked successfully to build state legislatures that are anti-choice." But now that the pro-choice movement has reawakened, she adds, it has managed to establish majorities in some state legislatures. Idaho, for example, came close last year to enacting a strict anti-abortion law. But after the 1990 elections, both houses of the state legislature now favor abortion rights, according to an Idaho congressional aide. At the time of the Webster decision, 23 of the nation's 99 state legislative houses supported keeping abortion legal, according to NARAL statistics. Now that figure is 45, Michelman says. Since Webster, more than 550 pieces of anti-abortion legislation have been introduced in state legislatures. Of these, 10 anti-abortion laws have been enacted in nine states and in Guam. Six have been challenged in federal courts and could reach the Supreme Court, giving it an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. Of the six being challenged, the one likeliest to reach the Supreme Court first is a Pennsylvania law that, among other things: requires a married woman to notify her husband if she plans an abortion; requires a woman to wait 24 hours to have an abortion; and requires "informed consent," in which a doctor must convey to a woman certain information about the pregnancy designed to discourage abortion. The Supreme Court could rule on this law as early as the 1991-92 session, and given the increasingly conservative makeup of the court, may well negate Roe v. Wade. But, in effect, as long as the court is willing to let stand state laws that restrict abortion, as it did in the Webster decision, Roe v. Wade is de facto being overturned. So, even though pro-choice advocates have won nearly all the battles in the state legislatures, they aren't celebrating. Losing even a few "spells disaster when the courts are so dramatically stacked against us," says Michelman. The Supreme Court's latest abortion-related ruling, its May 23 Rust v. Sullivan decision upholding a government ban on abortion counseling in federally financed clinics, constitutes the anti-abortion movement's most recent victory. But, like their opponents, anti-abortion advocates aren't celebrating just yet. First they must get past a threatened congressional override of President Bush's expected veto of legislation designed to overrule the Supreme Court.

House action Last week, anti-abortion leaders in the House abandoned a plan to force a vote on that issue, deciding instead to let Bush veto the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill the provision was attached to. House abortion foes admitted they feared a poor showing if a vote were held on that issue in particular. The spending bill - which included the language overruling the Supreme Court ban on abortion counseling - passed by a whopping 353 to 74. But Kate Michelman and pro-choice congressmen caution against assuming the abortion counseling provision could garner more than a two-thirds majority on its own. According to Michelman, that provision is still 20 to 30 votes away from two-thirds. Congress has passed other pro-choice legislation lately: * In the spending bill for the District of Columbia, which passed 300 to 123, the House declined to restrict how D.C. spends locally raised revenue, leaving it open for expenditures on abortion. * In the 1992 foreign aid bill, the House defeated 234 to 188 an attempt to delete $20 million for the UN Population Fund, which has been controversial for its aid to China, where abortion is widely practiced. Last year such a deletion was approved. * In May, the House voted 220 to 208 to allow US servicewomen to get abortions in military hospitals overseas at their own expense. None of these bills is expected to have the legs to override an expected Bush veto. But pro-choice advocates are hoping the President gets the message that Congress, as they see it, consistently favors choice. And as the 1992 elections approach, they are also hoping the issue can do some damage to anti-abortion candidates.

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