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Health bill revives abortion groups

Lobbying over abortion was turning into a sleepy business. But the health care debate has brought a new boom, and both sides are exploiting it with fund-raising appeals.
Image: Anti-abortion demonstrators
An anti-abortion demonstrator is arrested by U.S. Capitol Police after refusing to leave Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's office on Nov. 5.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

Lobbying over abortion was turning into a sleepy business. But the health care debate has brought a new boom, and both sides are exploiting it with fund-raising appeals.

“The reaction has been phenomenal, like a match dropped on dry kindling,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Abortion opponents have been blanketing their supporters with solicitations and alarms since House Democrats laid out their health care proposals three months ago. “The largest expansion of abortion since Roe vs. Wade,” warns the Web site for Stop the Abortion Mandate, which directs visitors to sign up with the anti-abortion fund-raising group Susan B. Anthony List.

“It is far and away, in the history of our group, the biggest fulcrum of activism we have ever had,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president, adding that the 12-year-old organization has seen its contributions rise more than 50 percent from 2007, the last year without a national election.

Among other things, Susan B. Anthony List is using the money for automated phone campaigns in pivotal states and spending more than $130,000 on an advertising campaign aimed at Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, in Nevada, his home state. (The National Right to Life Committee is soliciting donations at

Abortion-rights groups got into the act two weeks ago, when the House of Representatives adopted an amendment sponsored by Representative Bart Stupak, Democrat of Michigan, to block the use of federal subsidies for insurance policies that cover abortion. “Stop Abortion Coverage Ban!” declares an online solicitation from Naral Pro-Choice America, warning that “women could lose the right to use their own personal, private funds to purchase an insurance plan with abortion coverage in the new health system.”

'Women are up in arms'
“Stop Stupak!” is the headline of a new online petition that doubles as a fund-raiser for Emily’s List, which raises money for female candidates who support abortion rights. The group’s president, Ellen Malcolm, said in an interview that she had not seen such an outpouring of support since Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, the 1989 Supreme Court decision that appeared to re-open the question of a right to abortion.

“Women are up in arms,” Ms. Malcolm said, adding that her group had made an exception to its no-lobbying policy to pressure the women it helped elect.

This week the Web site of Cosmopolitan magazine carried a “Secrets and Advice” column with the headline “Are Your Rights in Jeopardy?” that directed readers to a similar “Stop Stupak” Web site from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A third “Stop Stupak” campaign, by a group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, has raised more than $23,000 from more than 700 donors since it started Nov. 11, according to its host, the online fund-raising venture ActBlue.

“We have seen money coming in at every level,” said Ms. Richards of Planned Parenthood, which is also patching calls into lawmakers’ offices in several states. “Congressman Stupak managed to crystallize this movement in a way that is hard to replicate.”

Veteran observers of the abortion fight say that each side feels a real threat from the legislation. “It is not like burning your house down to collect the insurance,” said Rachel Laser, of the moderate Democratic group Third Way.

But the practical stakes for abortion are in some ways quite narrow. No one in the debate proposes adding or removing restrictions on the procedure itself. And leaders of both parties say their goal is to avoid using federal tax money to pay for abortion while subsidizing insurance coverage.

Democratic leaders favor requiring insurance companies to segregate any federal subsidies they receive from private premiums that they could use to cover abortion. Abortion opponents in Congress call that an accounting gimmick and want to prevent women from using the subsidies to buy plans that cover abortion no matter which dollars the insurer uses to pay for it. Women could still use their own money to pay for the procedure. In any case the provisions would directly affect roughly 15 percent of the population not currently receiving health coverage from either employers or the government.

What is more, polls show that abortion ranks low among priorities in the health care overhaul. In a poll conducted Nov. 12-15 by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, only 3 percent of respondents who opposed the health care proposals volunteered abortion as their reason, and when offered a list of alternatives, just 8 percent chose abortion as a top concern.

Almost none of those who favor the overall health care proposals volunteered abortion as a reason, and a plurality of them — 46 percent — agreed with abortion opponents that coverage of the procedure should not be included in government benefits. Thirty-five percent thought the plan should cover abortion. The poll was conducted with 1,003 adults nationwide and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Just a few months ago, some pollsters were predicting an end to the culture wars as younger generations grew more accustomed to same-sex unions and less passionate about opposing abortion. The long-running abortion fight played little role in the 2008 presidential race or even in last summer’s relatively uneventful Supreme Court confirmation.

But now the issue threatens to sidetrack the broader debate over a health care overhaul. A group of Democratic opponents of abortion in the House said they would block the final legislation if it allowed subsidies for abortion coverage. A group of abortion-rights supporters said they would block the bill if it restricted the subsidies, although they have yet to confirm that they have the votes to do so.

The interest groups that organized to do battle over abortion never decamped from the sides of the Potomac, said Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center who oversaw its recent poll. And their determination to reinvigorate their ground troops may be one reason abortion has become a flash point in the health care debate.

“The advocates on both sides are very loud,” Mr. Kohut said, “and they are making their case.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.