How 'partial birth' bill fits into shifting abortion wars

With Wednesday's vote, antiabortion forces score a win and Bush hones his support base.

When Republicans took the reins of Congress in January, abortion activists on both sides of the issue knew it was only a matter of time: With a sympathetic ear in the White House, major antiabortion legislation would at last become law.

For political reasons, President Bush didn't make passage of a ban on so-called partial-birth abortions his top priority. He had Iraq and tax cuts in his sights first. But, with the easy House passage of the partial-birth bill Wednesday night, the way is nearly clear for the president to satisfy a long-held dream of social conservatives, who have been fighting to outlaw the rare form of late-term abortion for eight years.

In short order, later this month, the Senate will vote on another bill dear to religious conservatives that enjoys wide public support: the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which recognizes a fetus as a crime victim if he or she is injured or killed in the course of a federal crime. The House has renamed the bill Laci and Conner's Law, after the high-profile murder in California of Laci Peterson and her unborn son.

Proponents of "fetal rights" are on a roll. The publicity surrounding the Peterson case, congressional action, and a Newsweek cover story on fetal rights featuring photos of a developing fetus - including one undergoing surgery - have pushed the already defensive abortion-rights movement further back on its heels.

"The fetal rights thing is part of an effort to create a picture that is not of moral, mature individual women making the best decisions for themselves," says Roger Evans, public-policy legal director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "The woman is out of the picture entirely. Instead, the picture that is created is of everybody's image of a cute little baby."

The future of the abortion tug-of-war

Where is all this heading? Ultimately, abortion foes hope to eliminate the right to abortion altogether - though many are willing to grant an exception if the mother's life is in danger. If one or more Supreme Court justices retires soon - a distinct possibility - World War III may break out in Washington over whom Bush nominates and what his or her stand on abortion might be.

Beyond that, the two sides part company in their analysis. Abortion-rights supporters see a Supreme Court that could be one vote away from overturning the nationwide right to abortion, as enshrined in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Abortion opponents believe they need at least two new justices, and don't feel that the nation is culturally ready to outlaw abortion. Thus the focus on peripheral bills like the partial-birth abortion ban and Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which horrify the public with gruesome images and may prepare the way for a frontal assault on abortion rights.

Politically, analysts say, Bush has handled the issue wisely. He's encouraged legislation that enjoys broad public support - including the approval of centrists who support the right to abortion, in the vast majority of cases, as long as it comes early in the pregnancy. A Newsweek poll found that 84 percent of the American public believes prosecutors should be able to bring homicide charges when a fetus is killed in the womb during a physical assault. But antiabortion legislators know that their strength on fetal issues would evaporate if they attacked abortion directly.

"There's no appetite among Republicans on Capitol Hill to visit polarizing cultural issues," says a senior aide to an anti-abortion senator. "They're very careful to approach the abortion issues around the edges, rather than those on the core."

John Green, an expert on the religious right at the University of Akron in Ohio, sees Bush and his top political adviser, Karl Rove, as coalition-builders whose own convictions are deeply colored by the need to keep that coalition together. "Bush is handling the issue very well," says Professor Green. Signing the late-term abortion bill will help "cement the social-conservative base. They're hungry for any kind of legislative victory. And it doesn't restrict that many abortions."

With limited laws, little public uproar

In the minds of most people, banning a rare form of abortion that critics call "partial-birth abortion," and granting fetuses some legal rights, does not represent a slippery slope toward the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Thus, these laws can be enacted without much public uproar. Already 28 states have laws that criminalize harm to fetuses - while protecting a woman's right to choose abortion and a doctor's right to perform one.

A vacancy on the Supreme Court is a different matter, though, and abortion-rights forces are getting ready for the struggle by conducting research on people the president might nominate and bracing themselves for the onslaught of attention that they hope will help their cause.

In the meantime, activists like Kate Michelman, head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, watch as much of the public goes along with socially conservative legislation that she sees as deceptive.

"The truth is, antichoice legislators dominate the House and the Senate, as well as the White House," says Ms. Michelman. "And that is frankly a result of pro-choice Americans not understanding how at risk their constitutional right to freedom of choice is." But when a vacancy opens up on the Supreme Court, she adds, "we are ready to go into high gear."

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