On Capitol Hill, Abortion Battle Intensifies on Many Fronts

From 'partial-birth abortion' to parental consent, this charged issue vexes lawmakers

It's the issue that won't go away.

Few debates evoke as much raw emotion as the long-running argument over abortion. The controversy will reach the floors of both houses of Congress several times in coming weeks, as members consider a host of abortion-related proposals.

For abortion opponents, the goal is a neutral government, one that neither funds nor promotes abortion. They are not intending to erode abortion rights outlined in landmark Supreme Court rulings in 1973 and 1992, they say.

"We're going after how abortion is promoted and supported and not after making abortion illegal," says Helen Alvar, spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "That is what's available to us [now]."

But abortion-rights activists see all the legislative activity differently. They say abortion opponents are seeking to highlight issues that repel the public, as part of a long-term strategy to erode support for abortion rights and discredit family planning.

"This is nothing new. The Republicans have led an assault on a woman's constitutional right to choose since they took over the Congress in 1995," says Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York, who has become the de facto leader of the pro-choice forces in the House.

In most cases, the Senate must deal with provisions coming from a more conservative House. Key among these is a Senate vote on whether to override President Clinton's veto of a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion, a late-term procedure even many on the pro-choice side find offensive. The House overrode the veto on a 296-to-132 vote in July. The Senate passed the original bill three votes short of the two-thirds needed to overcome a veto. Both sides say it's too close to call.

Senators will also consider the House-passed Child Custody Protection Act, which would make it a federal crime to take a girl across state lines for an abortion without the parental consent required by her home state.

The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected several amendments the White House says it needs before the president will sign. One would have exempted members of the girl's family, such as grandparents, from prosecution. Another would have required the attorney general to approve any prosecution under the law.

Ms. Alvar insists the debates over partial-birth abortion and parental consent are not really abortion debates. "The partial-birth debate is not an abortion debate, it is an infanticide debate," she says. "The parental-consent debate ... is a parents' rights debate."

But a pro-choice spokeswoman disagrees, saying the other side is trying to deflect attention from the fundamental issue of women's health. On partial-birth abortion, "Antichoice legislators are duping the public into believing that they're only going after one procedure," says Maureen Britell of the National Abortion Federation.

Meanwhile, abortion opponents have attached controversial provisions to the House version of several spending bills:

One amendment, tacked to a House spending bill passed in June, would prevent US approval of RU486, an abortion-inducing pill. The Senate version has no such provision.

Another House spending bill, still pending, contains language that would require that parents be notified when a teenage girl requests contraceptives from a federally funded family-planning clinic. A Senate subcommittee last Wednesday refused to include the language in its version.

Abortion opponents want the House foreign-operations spending bill to include a ban on US funding for international family-planning programs that perform or promote abortion. The dispute could hold up additional funding for the International Monetary Fund or to pay America's overdue United Nations assessments. The Senate version omits the ban.

Pro-choice activists hope the Senate will block the anti-abortion amendments in the spending bills when they reach House-Senate conference committees.

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