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How 'partial birth' bill fits into shifting abortion wars

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

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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
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