Freedom of Choice Act Splits Activists in Pro-Choice Movement

CONFIDENT that their cause is on the ascendancy under a new pro-choice administration, abortion-rights advocates, nevertheless, find themselves divided over the Freedom of Choice Act.

The act, aimed at codifying the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, would limit state restrictions on abortion. But some pro-choice groups and lawmakers are concerned that the legislation will be too watered-down.

"It's interesting to see - now that we don't have a common enemy - how the coalition has fragmented," one House staff member says.

The act was first introduced in 1989 and has been consistently vetoed by President Bush. But even against the backdrop of a pro-choice agenda from the White House and a crop of new pro-choice congressional freshmen, supporters are only cautiously optimistic.

"I believe that the absence of a veto by a president makes our chances much better," says Helen Neuborne, executive director of the National Organization for Women (NOW) Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. "But it is probably too soon to know what kind of harmful amendment might be placed on the bill, forcing compromises that will ultimately limit the bill's effectiveness."

At issue are two versions of the act.

* The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine, would allow states to choose not to fund abortions, to pass parental-consent laws, and to exempt private hospitals from performing abortions. The bill was approved by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last month; it has 42 cosponsors.

* The House version, introduced by Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California and supported by 127 co-sponsors, is less restrictive. But it does permit states to allow medical personnel to opt out of performing abortions. Mr. Edwards says pro-choice lawmakers must stand behind a restriction-free bill. "If members think they are going to be pro-choice and vote for any of those amendments, they are going to be labeled pro-life. You can't have it both ways."

Patricia Ireland, NOW president in Washington, is concerned that a weaker bill would undermine its purpose. "If we have to continue to fight [the abortion issue] in 50 state capitals, then I am not clear what the point is with moving ahead with the Freedom of Choice Act," she says.

Abortion opponents, however, are opposed to the passage of any act. They argue that any measure would bar states from imposing legitimate restrictions, such as a ban on late-term abortions. Thus, it is "far worse than Roe v. Wade," says James Smith, government-relations director of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission in Washington. "The Senate is going to be the key battle ground on the issue because we're not going to have an opportunity to have meaningful amendments [as opposed to] the House

side," he says. "The key is getting senators to agree to filibuster the bill because it's so radical."

The debate is producing unusual alliances. Liberal pro-choice activists and conservative anti-abortionists joined forces to strike down the parental-consent provision in the House version. Pro-choice proponents did not think the provision gave enough leeway to minors, while anti-abortionists saw it as too weak.

But beyond the wrangling over wording, pro-choice moderates seem willing to compromise. They argue that any act is needed to overrule restrictions allowed in last year's Planned Parenthood v. Casey Supreme Court decision. This decision reaffirmed Roe on a woman's right to abortion but also held that some state restrictions are constitutional, including a 24-hour waiting period, parental-consent provision, and state-mandated lectures on alternatives to abortion.

Abortion-rights advocates say the public should not be satisfied with the Casey decision. "People have misperceived [it] as somehow reaffirming Roe," says Sara Pines, spokeswoman for the National Abortion Rights Action League. "While the election of Clinton and other new pro-choice members of Congress was a very important victory, it was but a means to an end and not the end in itself."

Polls taken since Casey, meanwhile, show the public generally supporting the decision, says William Schneider, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Most voters felt that was the perfect compromise."

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