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 Washington Notebook

January 27, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 4

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

 "We need, most of all, to change hearts. And that is what we're doing, seeking common ground where possible, and persuading increasing numbers of our fellow citizens of the rightness of our cause."

President George Bush,
speaking by telephone hookup to anti-abortion demonstrators at the 32nd March for Life.


"I think it's important that family planning advocates reach out to those who may not agree with us on everything to try to find common ground in those areas where, hopefully, emergency contraception, more funding for prenatal care and others can be a point of common ground."

Senator Hilary Clinton,
addressing the Family Planning Advocates of New York State


The elusive search for 'common ground'

By Joe Feuerherd

President Bush spoke first, shortly after noon Jan. 24 by telephone hookup from Camp David to the thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators gathered for the 32nd March for Life.

"We need, most of all, to change hearts," said the president. "And that is what we're doing, seeking common ground where possible, and persuading increasing numbers of our fellow citizens of the rightness of our cause."

Next up, speaking after lunch on the same day at the Albany, N.Y., gathering of the Family Planning Advocates of New York State, was New York's junior senator, Hillary Clinton. "I think it's important that family planning advocates reach out to those who may not agree with us on everything to try to find common ground in those areas where, hopefully, emergency contraception, more funding for prenatal care and others can be a point of common ground," said the former First Lady.

Are the abortion-wars headed for a truce? Hardly. The resignation or death of a Supreme Court justice, particularly one who supports Roe v. Wade, will quickly harden the rhetoric on both sides of the abortion divide. And it's fantasy to suggest that Sen. Clinton is backing away from her core convictions. In the same speech in which she sought "common ground," she hailed Roe as "a decision that struck a blow for freedom and equality for women," condemned Bush Administration international family planning policies, pleaded for FDA approval of the morning-after pill, and argued that the decision to have an abortion is one in which "the government should have no role." Not much new there.

And it's noteworthy that Clinton, in seeking common ground, offered nice words for those who oppose abortion ("I for one respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available") but only asks pro-lifers to compromise. Pretty clever.

Likewise, Bush gave little quarter. "We're making progress in Washington. I've been working with members of the Congress to pass good, solid legislation that protects the vulnerable and promotes the culture of life. I signed into law a ban on partial birth abortion. Infants who are born despite an attempted abortion are now protected by law. So are nurses and doctors who refused to be any part of an abortion. And prosecutors can now charge those who harm or kill a pregnant woman with harming or killing her unborn child."

Yet it's clear that the once-stale abortion debate -- the baby-killers vs. the misogynists -- has shifted. It's a potentially pivotal moment.

On the Republican side, President Bush has never come right out and said what his most fervent pro-life supporters pray he believes: that he supports overturning the 1973 Roe decision and that he will appoint justices who share that view. "The America of our dreams, where every child is welcomed in law -- in life, and protected in law may still be some ways away," he told the marchers. The president (whose wife and mother are pro-choice) has left himself a lot of wiggle room.

On the Democratic side, Clinton is not alone in seeking new ways to soften Democratic rhetoric on abortion. Soon after his defeat, Sen. John Kerry told Democratic stalwarts that the party's take-no-prisoners abortion-rights position was an electoral loser. Then on Jan. 12 Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy told a National Press Club audience that "a woman has the constitutional right to make her own reproductive decisions, and I support that right wholeheartedly." But, he continued, "If we are serious about reducing the number of abortions, we must be serious about reducing unwanted pregnancy. We must adopt policies with a proven track record of reducing abortion."

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Meanwhile, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate -- Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada -- are pushing the candidacy of former Rep. Tim Roemer to succeed Terry McAuliffe as Democratic Party chairman. Pelosi is strongly pro-choice, Reid less so, while Roemer has impeccable pro-life credentials.

Something's afoot.

Events will shape the president's treatment of the issue. The congressional anti-abortion agenda includes legislation that would make it a crime to transport a minor across state lines to seek an abortion and a measure that would require abortion clinics to inform women seeking late-turn abortions that the fetus will feel pain during the procedure. If Congress passes those bills, Bush will sign them, but don't look for him to put his vaunted "political capital" at stake during these debates.

The real test for the president comes over potential Supreme Court vacancies. Will he, like his father did with David Souter, nominate a cipher who could go either way on a challenge to Roe? (Souter, along with Republican nominees Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, has been key to the pro-choice balance on the Court.) The president's recent about-face on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage -- he recently told an interviewer that it's not part of his legislative agenda for this Congress -- has social conservatives concerned that the president's wiggle room could torpedo their agenda.

Meanwhile, pro-choice Democrats looking to broaden the party's appeal will be put on the defensive by the proposed anti-abortion legislation. Polling shows that the two pro-life initiatives planned for this Congress have overwhelming support among the public.

So where's the common ground? One problem is that there are few Washington-based right-to-lifers willing to engage -- to test the sincerity -- of the Democrats. The largest pro-life lobbying organization, the National Right to Life Committee, is rightly seen as an adjunct of the Republican Party, more concerned about partisan politics and the organizational coffers than actual progress in reducing the abortion rate. But even those pro-lifers less compromised by partisanship have little desire to help pro-choice Democrats get right with the voters. "I don't know anybody in the pro-life movement who gives two hoots about what Kennedy or Clinton say," says a leading Washington-based pro-lifer. "It's a shift for purely political reasons and nobody believes them. Let them vote pro-life a couple of times and then we'll come see them."

Perhaps there's hope outside the Beltway.

If the Democrats are serious about reducing the number of abortions "they should start talking to people who are at work doing just that," a veteran staffer to a leading pro-life Republican senator told me. "The people at the [pro-life] crisis pregnancy centers tend to be non-political and see themselves as providing a community service," he continued. "They should start by finding out what these groups are doing -- they exist in virtually every congressional district across the country -- and then figure out how to be helpful."

Further, said the staffer, Democrats should embrace efforts to increase regulation of abortion-providers, who, he said, are frequently profiteers providing unsafe services to vulnerable women who see no other choice but abortion. Continued the Senate staffer: "There is a way -- without ceasing to be liberal or even pro-choice -- to really begin to make 'abortions safe, legal, and rare.' "


But in fact, like most every area of the abortion debate, there's a lot of baggage surrounding both the crisis pregnancy centers and efforts to regulate abortion-providers. Pro-choice advocates argue that many of the centers use deceptive means to attract clients: women, they claim, think they are going to an abortion provider and only discover the center's anti-abortion message once they enter a facility. Plus they fear that additional regulation of abortion clinics will further reduce their number, which, in fact, is what proponents of increased regulation hope happens.

Will this moment pass without a genuine reappraisal of what's possible? Perhaps. Common ground, like common sense, is not, it seems, all that common.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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