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Pro-Choice Forces Are Optimistic About Clinton Plans on Abortion

RESIDENT Clinton's pro-choice initiatives are giving fresh hope to abortion-rights advocates, who have felt ignored during the past two presidential administrations.

One of the most closely watched initiatives will be his plan to lift the ban on federal funding of abortions for poor women. The ban is spelled out in the Hyde amendment.

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The issue promises to bring a vigorous debate in Congress, with pro-choice advocates and anti-abortionists alike predicting a tough battle. But after last month's murder of Dr. David Gunn outside a Florida clinic and the election of a pro-choice president, abortion-rights groups say they feel they have an edge in the debate.

"I certainly think this is going to be challenging to get this through Congress," says Sara Pines, spokeswoman for the National Abortion Rights Action League in Washington. "But with the leadership of the president, I think we can restore government neutrality to health care."

One issue of concern is how strictly Mr. Clinton will enforce his plan. In announcing the idea last week, White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos said it would allow states "flexibility." Pro-choice advocates are concerned that Clinton will make concessions to states whose constitutions ban use of the state money for abortions - including Colorado and Clinton's home state of Arkansas.

"They want to give states flexibility so it's unclear if they are going to give states the option to opt out," one House staff member says. Although some states may not support Medicaid-funded abortions, others would - including the 13 that currently pay for them using their own state funds. Medicaid is a health program for the poor, financed jointly by the federal government and the states.

The amendment, introduced by United States Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, was first passed in 1976 and every year since as part of federal appropriations legislation. The amendment prohibits funding for abortions in all cases except when the life of the mother is threatened. Clinton aides say the president will call for lifting the ban as part of the budget he submits to Congress this week.

Clinton's measure, which will first go through the House Appropriations Committee, is expected to be up for a floor vote in early June. A Senate vote is not expected until late summer.

Pro-choice forces hope for some additional federal support. Under the current system, low-income women are denied freedom to make a personal decision, activists say. Such a policy sets up a "two-tiered system of fundamental freedom for women," Ms. Pines says.

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In addition, many low-income women delay having abortions until they can scrape together the money to pay for them, says Susan Cohen, senior public-policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a research arm of Planned Parenthood. Such delayed abortions pose health risks and are more costly in the end, she says.

Anti-abortion groups, for their part, say Clinton's proposal would force states to fund a policy against their will. Not only will the proposal burden taxpayers, but it will also encourage more abortions, they say. Repealing the ban would mean 1 million more abortions a year in the US, Representative Hyde says.

While the Hyde amendment is generating sparks, the biggest battle over Clinton's pro-choice policies will be over his national health plan, says Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee Inc. Clinton said during his campaign that he would include abortion services as part of the plan.

On April 6, House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington predicted a close vote in Congress if Clinton tries to extend health-insurance policies of federal employees and their dependents to cover abortion.

But the policy of federally funding abortions promises contentious discussions on its own. Polls show, for example, that individuals who identify themselves as pro-choice do not always support federal funding for abortion services.

A June 1992 New York Times/CBS News poll found that 52 percent of those surveyed were opposed to tax financing of abortions for women who could not afford them, while 42 percent favored it. In the same poll, 41 percent said abortion should be available to all women who want it, 39 percent said it should be available with restrictions, and 18 percent were opposed to it.

In previous years, pro-choice members of Congress have been as lukewarm to the idea as the general public. But with Clinton in front on the issue, lawmakers will likely stand behind him, including new pro-choice freshmen members.

"The new members should be helpful. Most of at least the Democrats and some Republicans ran on pro-choice issues," says Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California. "And some can be said to have won because of their pro-choice stands in the November election." But congressional support may erode if there is public backlash to the idea, as was the case when Clinton announced his attorney general appointments earlier this year, says William Schneider, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washin gton.

"[Abortion] is a real squishy issue for people," a House staff member says.

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