Conservatives Ramp Up Abortion Fight

Passage of Bill On ‘Partial Birth’ Spurs Legislation

By Ori Nir, With Reporting by Ami Eden in New York.

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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Washington — Emboldened by the passage of a ban on so-called “partial birth” abortions last week, Republican conservatives in Congress now plan to push several other bills aimed at limiting abortions on a national level.

Congressional staffers confirmed this week that Congress is planning to restart the legislative process in the near future on three bills aimed at limiting abortion. One would recognize a fetus as a human being in homicide cases. A second would allow publicly funded health organizations to decline any involvement in abortions, including providing information about the procedure. The third would make it a crime for a non-parent — including a grandparent — to transport a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion, where state law requires parental consent or notification in a minor’s abortion.

These bills “are of great concern to us,” said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, in an interview with the Forward. Liberal Jewish groups are expected to join the pro-choice lobby in fighting the measures.

It is not clear, however, if abortion opponents will be able to count on their main organizational ally in the Jewish community, Agudath Israel of America. A leading ultra-Orthodox group, the Aguda backed the ban on “partial birth abortion,” a term coined by abortion opponents to describe a rarely used emergency procedure in which the fetus is partially removed from the womb through the birth canal and its brain punctured to deliver it dead. The group has not taken a position on any of the three new measures, though one of them appears to contradict the ancient Jewish teaching that the killing of a fetus does not qualify as a homicide. The group has previously stated its opposition to laws that define life as beginning at conception.

Activists on both sides are predicting that the abortion debate will escalate rather than recede after President Bush follows through on his pledge to sign the ban on partial-birth abortions. Bush told reporters during a press conference Tuesday: “No, I don’t think the culture has changed to the extent that the American people or the Congress will totally ban abortion.”

Given the broad public support for the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion and the lack of a majority in the Supreme Court to overturn it, pro-choice activists see anti-abortion advocates as trying to chip away at Roe v. Wade. “They start on these outside extremes, hoping step by step to move into the core right,” said Shelly Klein, Hadassah’s director of advocacy. Klein cited the passage of laws recognizing fetal rights, including the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. The bill, which already passed a House subcommittee, classifies a fetus as a crime victim if it is injured or killed while a federal crime is being committed. Proponents say that it does not classify the fetus as a full-fledged person or violate Roe. They note that 28 states have passed similar laws.

The bill’s sponsors have dubbed it “Laci and Conner’s Law,” after Laci Peterson and her unborn son, who were murdered last December. Congressional leaders may refrain from a final vote on the legislation pending a verdict in the case.

Co-sponsors of the bill say it is necessary to clarify and protect the spirit of existing law, which prohibits the government from denying funding to health-care institutions that fail to provide or require training in abortion services. Proponents say that the bill is need to combat efforts by pro-choice groups to force medical providers to perform abortions.

Another bill, which is believed to be next on the GOP’s anti-abortion agenda, is the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act. This bill, which was introduced in the Senate in June but has not yet been discussed in committee, would allow a broad range of health-care organizations and individual health-care providers to refrain from performing, paying or providing referrals for abortions. The Abortion Non-Discrimination Act passed the House 229 to 189 in 2002, during the last session of Congress. To become law, it would have to be approved again in the House, plus pass the Senate, before being signed by the president.

“It would eliminate abortion as a medical service all over the country; it’s a real bad bill,” said Michelman. The NARAL leader is set to be honored at next week’s convention of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

A third abortion-related piece of legislation that congressional conservatives are expected to push is the Child Custody Protection Act. The bill, which has been introduced in the Senate, would make it a federal crime for any person, other than a parent or legal guardian, to transport a minor across state lines to obtain an abortion if such action circumvents a state law requiring parental involvement in a minor’s abortion. Anyone, other than the minor’s parent, including a grandparent or religious counselor, could be convicted under the statute, which passed the House during the last congressional session. At least 20 states have laws in effect that require the consent or notification of at least one parent, or court authorization, before a minor can obtain an abortion.

“There is a clear attempt [by abortion opponents] to frame the debate as a civil-rights debate: the rights of the fetus, the rights of the health-care organization, the rights of the parents,” said Rev. Robert Tiller, legislative coordinator of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. “Now that they have an anti-choice president, an anti-choice majority in both houses of Congress and an increasingly sympathetic judiciary, they are pressing harder and achieving more success.”

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