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New Congress May Find Little Agreement On Abortion-Rights Bill

FOUR weeks after President-elect Clinton's victory, abortion-rights advocates are still floating on air over the thought of having an ally in the White House.

Pro-choice legislation now needs only a simple majority in Congress to become law, instead of the two-thirds majority needed to override certain vetoes from anti-abortion President Bush.

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Several divisive government policies can be rescinded with the stroke of Mr. Clinton's pen, including the "gag rule," which restricts the abortion information that federally funded clinics can offer, and the ban on federal funding of research using aborted fetuses. And for the next four years, any Supreme Court vacancies will be filled by people who Clinton is confident will support choice.

But the centerpiece of pro-choice advocacy - the so-called Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) - will remain difficult to enact. The bill, which aims to encode the right to abortion in federal law, was not even brought to the floor last summer when it appeared that the bill would be laden with restrictive amendments.

Earlier, Democratic leaders in both houses had promised a vote, on the assumption that it would pass and be vetoed, to highlight Mr. Bush's anti-abortion stance during the election campaign. (Supreme Court refuses to reinstate Guam's anti-abortion law, Page 7.)

In the House, there is now a new ballgame, or at least a quarter of a new ballgame, with 110 new members coming in. Interest groups on abortion, both pro and con, agree that the new House will have more abortion-rights supporters than the outgoing one. Planned Parenthood puts the net gain at 27 seats. The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) sees a gain of 11. On the other side, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) counts its losses at 15 or 16 votes.

The difference in estimates goes to the heart of why FOCA could run into trouble again. The question is how "pro-choice" is defined. If someone supports the right of a woman to choose whether to continue a pregnancy but is willing to allow certain restrictions on that right, such as a mandatory 24-hour waiting period, parental notice, or consent for minors, is that person still pro-choice?

NARAL does not think so, but the NRLC does. More important, a majority of the public supports such restrictions on abortion.

THE bill's sponsors say its purpose is to codify the rights guaranteed in the 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide. With the current high court only one vote away from overturning Roe, abortion-rights advocates are eager to set up a safety net.

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But even among groups allied on the issue, there is a difference of opinion as to what restrictions FOCA would allow. To the American Civil Liberties Union, "codifying Roe" means no restrictions. The NRLC argues that, in fact, FOCA would take abortion law "beyond Roe," since the Supreme Court has let stand since 1989 two state laws restricting abortion, saying they are allowable within the Roe decision.

In a tactical maneuver, NARAL has stated that it will go along with a "clarification" in FOCA that leaves issues related to minors' abortions up to the states. NARAL political director James Wagoner stresses that this does not mean NARAL supports restrictions on minors, like parental involvement. Rather, he says, such a concession is preferable to an amendment that would establish a federal standard on parental involvement, which is what Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas sponsored and got the Senate to approve easily, 92 to 8.

Divisions among the bill's co-sponsors began to emerge when the subject of restrictions came up. The lead sponsor, Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California, does not want restrictions. But other cosponsors, when push came to shove, were willing to allow some restrictions in the interest of getting the bill passed at all.

For many pro-choice activists, however, no FOCA is better than a bad FOCA. Given their efforts to fight restrictive state laws, conceding a FOCA that codifies not only Roe, but also such laws, would be anathema.

"A FOCA without restrictive amendments is essential," says David Andrews, acting president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The Pennsylvania law requiring, for example, a 24-hour waiting period has hit the poor and the young in particular, he says, and "we must restore access to them."

NRLC president Wanda Franz says her organization must now play an educational role, "showing the public just how extreme the other side is." What she does not say is that right-to-lifers can play divide-and-conquer in Congress's FOCA debate, helping to sink the bill with amendments.

A big wild card will be Clinton himself. During the campaign, he repeatedly called himself pro-choice and promised to sign FOCA. But it remains unclear what kind of restrictive amendments, if any, he would allow.

"Considering Clinton's tendency to fuzz the edges on issues - look at how he's maneuvered already on gays in the military - I could see him allowing parental notification with a strong judicial bypass," says the Republican House aide. "Most members would agree with that."

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