Yuri Gripas/Xinhua/Landov

Legislating for life

Roe v. Wade | Will the combination of a pro-life House led by a pro-life speaker succeed in giving headaches to pro-abortion groups during the next two years?

Issue: "Babies are back," Jan. 29, 2011

On the same January day that John Boehner took the oath of office to become the next House speaker, the pro-abortion group NARAL Pro-Choice America asked its supporters to take their own oath.

In launching their new website standuptoboehner.org, Nancy Keenan, the group's president, urged Americans to sign a pledge to support abortion. Keenan argued that the new speaker must learn "that his anti-choice agenda is out of step with our country's values and priorities."

Some are calling Boehner, who has said there is "no cause more noble then the defense of human life," the most pro-life speaker since the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion.

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But he is not alone on Capitol Hill. Last November a majority of Americans chose life as one of the country's values: The conservative surge brings as many as 246 pro-life lawmakers to the House. The new pro-life majority includes a net gain of about 45 seats for the movement. The number of women in the House who are now pro-life increased by 70 percent while the number of pro-abortion women in the House declined by 16 percent.

Unified by a sense of urgency in the aftermath of last year's healthcare debate, conservatives sent to Congress what Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee calls the biggest pro-life increase in the House during a single election. "We'll see if that translates into pro-life legislation," Johnson added.

The top priority for pro-life groups is a bill scrubbing every bit of abortion funding out of the federal government. Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., are expected to introduce legislation establishing a permanent, government-wide prohibition on taxpayer funding of abortion. The blanket ban would prevent pro-life legislators from having to fight each year to insert abortion limits in numerous annual spending bills.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., has introduced legislation that would prevent tax dollars from being sent to abortion providers under the federal government program, called Title X, created to provide family planning for the needy. This is part of a larger effort to defund Planned Parenthood in much the same way the government defunded the controversial community organization ACORN last year. In 2008-2009, Planned Parenthood received more than $363 million in government grants while performing 324,800 abortions.

"We are really focused on being on the offensive because we can be on the offensive," says Johanna Dasteel, senior congressional liaison with the American Life League. "It feels really good."

Repealing the healthcare law in its entirety faces long odds in the Senate and an inevitable veto by President Barack Obama. But pro-life lawmakers may have more success zeroing in on the abortion element of the new law. Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., is planning to introduce legislation, called the "Protect Life Act," that would ban federal abortion mandates and subsidies from appearing in any element of the new healthcare system.

Pitts now has the clout to move this bill forward: He is the new chair of a House subcommittee with jurisdiction over federal health programs. Democrats in the Senate, and President Obama, may have a hard time killing this focused measure after their statements last year claiming that the new healthcare law would not include abortion funding.

Targeting funding is not the only pro-life legislative goal for the 112th Congress. Also on the wish list: a federal law, similar to the one passed last year in Nebraska, banning late-term abortions based on when a fetus can feel pain (estimated at about 20 weeks into a pregnancy). Groups also are pushing the long-sought Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act, which would make it a crime for adults to help minors cross state lines to have an abortion without parental consent.

But the Senate will remain a sizeable roadblock. Pro-lifers gained as many as six new votes in the Senate including a rarity-a pro-life woman in the Senate with New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte. But that still gives the body only about 46 senators who consistently vote for life, shy of the 60 votes needed to control that chamber. The good news, according to Johnson: "Congress is much better equipped to stop a lot of bad things."

One more election could make a difference in the Senate: In 2012, 23 Democrats and just 10 Republican senators are up for reelection. Pro-life groups will remind those lawmakers that 15 out of 20 pro-life House Democrats who voted for the healthcare bill lost their jobs in 2010.

"If you vote for taxpayer-funded abortions," warned Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, "you should be prepared to lose your next election."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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