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Abortion debate altered by Obama presidency

The advent of the Obama administration is rousing enthusiasm among abortion-rights supporters and deep anxiety among opponents as both sides mark Thursday's anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Image: Anti-Abortion groups pray at Supreme Court
Anti-abortion demonstrator Belinda Yoder, 20, of Charlotte, North Carolina, stands in front of the Supreme Court on the first day of the court's new term Oct. 6, 2008 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The advent of the Obama administration is rousing enthusiasm among abortion-rights supporters and deep anxiety among opponents as both sides mark Thursday's anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Abortion-rights groups view President Barack Obama — and the Democratic leadership in Congress — as allies who are likely to ease restrictions on federal funding, broaden family-planning programs, and install federal judges who support the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

Anti-abortion activists fear multiple political setbacks and are urging the Republican minority in the Senate to filibuster if necessary.

"The alignment of a hard-core pro-abortion president with pro-abortion Democratic majorities in Congress means that many existing pro-life policies are now in great jeopardy," Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee wrote in a memo this month.

"Some damage is inevitable," Johnson added. "But the extent to which the Obama abortion agenda will be achieved will depend on the perception of elected policy-makers as to how the public is responding to the proposed changes."

'Global gag rule'
Obama can take some steps without Congress. Abortion-rights supporters hope he will quickly repeal the so-called "global gag rule," which bans overseas family planning groups that receive U.S. funds from providing any abortion-related services or information.

"He could move right away," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "It would make a big, big difference in the lives of poor women abroad."

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, wrote Obama last week urging him to keep the funding ban, arguing that "a shift toward promoting abortion in developing nations would also increase distrust of the United States."

In the U.S., abortion-rights groups are backing what they call a "common-ground, commonsense" agenda in Congress aimed at reducing the number of unintended pregnancies. The Prevention First Act, already endorsed by Obama, would increase federal funding for family planning, promote comprehensive sex education, and expand women's access to contraceptives.

Other proposals, supported by moderates and conservatives, would provide incentives for pregnant women to carry their fetuses to term. But there would likely be bitter debate, largely along partisan lines, if Democrats try to repeal the 33-year-old Hyde Amendment and other laws that ban federal funding for abortions under almost all circumstances.

Lifting the federal funding ban
Abortion-rights activists would like these bans lifted so that poor women could access abortion through Medicaid and servicewomen could get abortions through military health programs. Conservatives have mounted a petition drive aimed at pressuring House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., to preserve the bans.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., a lead sponsor of the Prevention First Act, says she opposes the Hyde Amendment but would not make it a priority to repeal it this year.

"Our efforts should be focused on finding common ground to prevent unwanted pregnancies so you won't have to worry about abortions in the first place," she said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

While on the defensive in Washington, anti-abortion groups are on the attack against the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which provides family-planning and reproductive-health services — including abortions — at its nationwide network of clinics.

Planned Parenthood receives extensive public funding for its non-abortion services, and anti-abortion activists contend this amounts to an indirect subsidy of abortion that should be halted, especially during an economic crisis.

Last fall, several anti-abortion groups formed a coalition to hinder the opening of new Planned Parenthood clinics and reducing the funding it receives from corporate and government sources.

Planned Parenthood optimistic
The economic crisis and the Bernard Madoff investment scandal already have affected donations to Planned Parenthood, which recently laid off some employees. Its president, Cecile Richards, wouldn't specify the number of layoffs, but expressed confidence that her organization would thrive under Obama.

"We're excited to have a president who understands and supports women's health needs, who will be partner," she said.

Several of Obama's high-level appointments reflect his ties to the abortion-rights movement.

The White House communications director, Ellen Moran, was executive director of EMILY's List — which raises funds for female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. Domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes served on the board of EMILY's List, and Dawn Johnsen, appointed as assistant attorney general for the office of legal counsel, was once an abortion-rights lawyer for NARAL.

Across the country, rallies, vigils and other events are planned Thursday to mark the Roe v. Wade anniversary. Activities in Washington include the annual March for Life, an anti-abortion service at the new U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, a "Blogs for Life" conference featuring Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and a vigil outside the Supreme Court building in support of abortion rights, organized by the National Organization for Women.

But this year, March for Life participants won't be hearing a presidential message of support from George W. Bush. Bush remained popular among anti-abortion activists, who felt their views were reflected in his appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal judgeships.