WASHINGTON — In a fall campaign where conservatives find themselves with few strong issues to run on, the debate over late-term abortions is one exception.
The battle lines are clear and, for members of the House of Representatives, they are about to get clearer. Perhaps as early as today, the House will vote on whether to override President Clinton's veto of a bill that would ban a rarely used technique that abortion foes call "partial birth abortion."
The procedure is used to end pregnancies at 4-1/2 months or later. Its opponents say the procedure is tantamount to infanticide and goes beyond the constitutional protection of abortion rights that the Supreme Court found in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Supporters of the technique say it is used in circumstances when the mother's life or health are at stake or when the baby is deformed; further, they say, the decision on whether to use this procedure should be left to the woman and her doctor.
Public opinion lies strongly - about 70 percent, polls show - with those who oppose the procedure. This contrasts with public opinion on abortion in general, which is deeply divided.
But on late-term abortions, Mr. Clinton and the House's abortion-rights minority face an uphill battle with the public. For Clinton, the political impact appears minimal. But for members of Congress, a vote now to support the right to late-term abortions - only weeks from election day - invites stepped-up advertising from abortion foes.
This spring, the House voted 286 to 129 to ban the procedure - a margin already close to the two-thirds majority needed to override Clinton's veto. Both sides report the override vote will be very close.
The Roman Catholic Church has fought hard to sway congressional opinion on the matter. In the past several months, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has urged local dioceses to educate church members on the issue; run a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress; led a national day of prayer and fasting; and, most recently, held a prayer service at the Capitol. "This is the first time the nation has focused on what happens in an abortion," says Gail Quinn of the conference's Pro-Life Secretariat.
Abortion-rights activist Kate Michelman says the debate on abortion has never been more sensationalized. "If people could just step back from the rhetoric, we could see what's at issue: who decides which procedure is needed to meet the health needs of women."