Cover Story

Holding the line

Senate shifts, terrorist attacks, and biological warfare against the sanctity of human life leave the question: Whatever happened to the abortion issue?

Issue: "Roe vs. Wade at 29," Jan. 19, 2002

in Washington-In all the warmth and sparkle of a White House Christmas party, Congressman Dave Weldon of Florida felt a chill wind blowing in the direction of pro-life efforts. At the end of July, he had joined with Democrat Bart Stupak to create a 103-vote margin in the House in favor of a ban on human cloning. But in December he lost the festive spirit when he chatted at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a conservative and usually reliable pro-life Republican senator who suddenly wasn't so reliable. "I went into all the arguments, but they didn't seem to hold any weight," Mr. Weldon said. "I got the feeling he was for allowing human cloning for research purposes. He didn't come out and say so, but he didn't send me any reassuring signals." With the 29th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision arriving on Jan. 22, pro-lifers are looking for reassuring signals about rolling back the culture of death. They are finding that on the issue of protecting life, the House seems willing, but the Senate is weak. The result: Abortion opponents face a silent stalemate that favors the pro-abortion status quo, but at least they're suffering no setbacks. In approving the new year's spending legislation, House pro-lifers were able to preserve most of their recent gains:

  • In funding the District of Columbia, House members retained the ban on using local or federal taxpayer money to pay for abortions.
  • In funding the Justice Department, they preserved a ban on federal Legal Services Corporation dollars to fuel abortion-related litigation.
  • In the biggest abortion struggle, over funding the Department of Health and Human Services, pro-lifers retained a ban on funding abortions through Federal Employee Health Benefits. They maintained the decades-old Hyde Amendment preventing direct federal funding of abortions. They also nurtured ongoing "conscience protection" provisions to prevent health care providers from being discriminated against because they refuse to perform abortions.
  • The House also revised the Dickey-Wicker amendment banning federal funding of embryo-destroying stem-cell research to state that it was not in conflict with the Bush policy of allowing subsidies for research on existing stem-cell lines.
  • In the foreign operations bill, abortion foes fought off pro-abortion efforts in both the House and Senate to eliminate the president's reinstatement of the Mexico City policy. So for another year, taxpayer dollars will not be promoting abortion services or advocacy abroad. Other abortion bills are stuck in neutral. Both the House and Senate versions of the insurance-regulating "Patients' Bill of Rights" include the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. Abortion advocates fiercely oppose that bill, which simply states that abortionists get no second chance if their abortion procedures fail on the first try to kill the child: The surviving infant is entitled to medical protection. Meanwhile, when House liberals attempted to repeal abortion restrictions, pro-life forces held them in check:
  • In July, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) attempted to repeal the ban on abortion funding for federal prisoners, but lost by 84 votes.
  • In late October, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (R-Calif.) proposed an amendment to allow abortion at overseas military hospitals, but lost 217-199. Abortion advocates have outpaced their opponents in the federal subsidies department. Pro-lifers are losing their efforts to cut or hold the line on Title X programs that authorize HHS to fund family-planning clinics, which will cost taxpayers over a quarter of a billion dollars during the next fiscal year. In a review of family-planning programs, the General Accounting Office reported that Planned Parenthood received $137.3 million in fiscal year 2000, an increase from $125.7 million in 1999. The Population Council, which is developing the abortion-inducing drug RU-486, received $41.3 million in fiscal 2000, an increase from $39.7 million. But human cloning is the only front-burner "life" issue in Washington, made more urgent by the November Advanced Cell Technologies declaration that it had created the first human clones in the laboratory. The unsolved mystery is whether the Senate will join the House and ban human cloning when the question comes up for debate in the spring. Cloning will be the focus of the Jan. 22 annual March for Life dinner in Washington, in which Mr. Weldon plans to speak about the moral and technological problems of cloning. After shepherding a major cloning victory through a House closely divided on abortion votes, Mr. Weldon stressed that many legislators who routinely favor abortion have joined the coalition against cloning. While the right focuses on the desanctification of life, the left objects to its commercialization-and together, they may form a solid majority. The only question mark concerns Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who've suddenly warmed to the prospect of cloning embryos to destroy them for stem-cell research. Sam Brownback, the Senate sponsor of a bill closely resembling the Weldon bill, is pushing for a major grass-roots campaign among pro-lifers, and is also working with supportive environmental groups like Friends of the Earth. Sen. Brownback is leaving no stone unturned: "I'm hoping to convince the president and his speechwriters to put strong language into the State of the Union. We're working on Ralph Nader to join us." Outside of cloning, though, the abortion issue has dropped off the Bush administration's radar screen. Just a year ago, on the first business day of his administration, President Bush marked a change in the abortion atmosphere by renewing the so-called Mexico City policy, which banned federal funds for international agencies that promote abortion around the world. Since then, rapid changes have driven the issue ever closer to the "missing" space on the milk carton. That's because TeamBush has focused on its most prominent campaign promises, like the tax cut and the education package. Abortion, sadly, never was a major campaign issue in the year 2000. To stand with pro-lifers on the campaign trail and at the Philadelphia convention, candidate Bush pledged that "when Congress sends me a bill against partial-birth abortion, I will sign it into law." But that promise became almost irrelevant weeks before his convention speech, when the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that partial-birth abortion bans must preserve a "health" exception for the mother. That gaping legal hole renders protective laws useless-because the abortionist gets to determine the meaning of "health." (The American Medical Association had found that the partial-birth procedure is never medically necessary to preserve maternal health.) Changes in the Senate have also altered the abortion debate. If progress seemed unlikely with precarious Republican majorities, hopes grew dimmer when Sen. Jim Jeffords defected to create a Democratic majority in the Senate. And when terror struck on Sept. 11, legislators quickly agreed that unity against terrorists trumped discussion of terror in the womb. Even attempts to hold hearings on abortion matters were foiled by fears of terrorism. The anthrax scare hit Washington just as the House International Relations Committee was holding a hearing on Oct. 17 to discuss how China's population-control bureaucrats were still forcing abortions and sterilizations on women, and destroying their homes if they hid or resisted. "People were literally fleeing the building as they began to evacuate the area," one House aide who was present remembers. Rep. Chris Smith, a long-time abortion foe, says he has no illusions about overnight revolutions, but he's tired of political strategists for decades saying that abortion would have to take a back seat to dealing with other emergencies, from whipping inflation to supporting the Contras in Nicaragua. "There will never be the 'right time,'" he told WORLD. "This shouldn't be something where you just manage part of your base, when you should embrace a whole lot of people who are being slaughtered." President Bush isn't expected to hop up to speak at the March for Life podium this year, since even Ronald Reagan spoke to the crowd by telephone. On life issues beyond cloning, only one side seems to relish the whiff of a culture war. While Democrats contemplate scaring the voters by comparing American religious conservatives to the Taliban, George W. Bush's strategists still like the math of uniting better than dividing.

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