The voice of the portly, whitehaired congressman dropped nearly to a whisper as he spoke to a ballroom full of fellow Catholics last winter.
“Those little ones, they really are orphans,” Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., murmured. He was speaking of the “33 million tiny lives exterminated” since the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade abortion decision in 1973.
“I suggest we create an adoption of desire,” the representative told his admirers, “that we adopt those millions of little friendless orphans…. In the dead of night,” he said, “think to yourself, ‘I got family up there.”’
Those passionate words from Hyde, who has been fighting abortion rights for more than 20 years and who will soon be chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, reflect a prevailing sentiment in the new Republicancontrolled Congress.
Supporters and opponents of abortion rights generally agree that the November elections gave opponents a working majority in the House and nearly half the Senate.
Despite the power shift, no one is predicting an immediate frontal assault on Roe vs. Wade, the decision that barred states from outlawing abortions during the early stage of pregnancy. For one thing, there’s President Clinton and his veto power. For another, many Americans favor abortion rights.
But in the next Congress, there will be a spate of legislation aimed at placing subtler limits on women’s choices about ending pregnancies, advocates on both sides of the barricades predict.
“I’m not afraid of an outright ban on abortion right now,” said Donna Singletary of the National Abortion Federation, a group that represents clinics and doctors. “But I’m severely afraid of a whittling away … it will cut the availability of and access to abortion.”
The House Republicans’ Contract With America includes a promise to vote on legislation blocking the use of any federal welfare funds for abortion services, counseling or referrals. The Republicans hope to use money for preventing out-ofwedlock pregnancies and for promoting adoption and orphanages.
Federal funding now earmarked for family-planning programs is also being questioned by conservatives.
Challenges are also expected to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. That new law makes intimidation and violence at abortion clinics a federal crime. Conservatives suggest the law, known as the FACE Act, is an unconstitutional infringement on free expression. FACE advocates worry that funding for enforcement and investigations will be threatened.
Conservatives also hope to derail research on the abortion pill known as RU 486. As part of the Food and Drug Administration approval process, clinical trials on the pill are under way.
The anti-abortion mood in Congress is also expected to affect other nations that now receive U.S. and United Nations assistance for population programs.
Under the new leadership of conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is bound to “take a look at what the administration is up to in terms of forcing abortion” on those countries, said Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.
While anti-abortion advocates hold considerable power, they are unlikely to press the issue hard with the public still divided over abortion. A Gallup poll last month showed that 53 percent opposed GOP proposals to make abortions more difficult to obtain, while 44 percent favored them.
“I think the anti-choice movement realizes they are now at a watershed,” on abortion, said James Wagoner, executive vice president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “They know they can’t make it illegal. But they can make it difficult and dangerous.”
That power extends to state legislatures, where abortion opponents made gains in state races nationwide, Wagoner pointed out. He predicts states will pass more parental- and paternal-consent requirements, and will impose waiting periods and other hurdles to limit ready access to abortion.
“In 1994, there were 120 major bills (in state legislatures) attempting to restrict abortion. A majority of the bills were defeated,” said Wagoner. “We expect the numbers to increase significantly, both the numbers of bills and the passage of bills.”
Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the conservative Family Research Council, is heartened by these trends. To her it seems the nation and the new conservative Congress are on the brink of rethinking public policies that she says have been destructive to life.
“With this change in power after a 40-year one-party system, we have the opportunity to talk about real options, and that’s really exciting,” said Hamrick.
Hamrick even foresees a revival of a constitutional amendment that would pass to the states the power to determine the legality of abortions. That so-called Human Life Amendment was first proposed during the Reagan presidency by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.
“There will be a lot of options like that put back on the table,” says Hamrick.
But when Hatch takes over as leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he is unlikely to turn quickly to abortion. Instead, balancedbudget and crime legislation will be demanding his immediate attention.
“We’ve got so much on our plate,” said his spokesman, Paul Smith, that tackling abortion will have to come later. “It’s something the senator would like to do,” says Smith. “But it’s not something we are prepared to do right away.”
Meanwhile, abortion-rights advocates fear conservatives are still gathering forces for a full-scale assault on Roe vs. Wade, which could be unleashed if the Republicans win back the White House.
The National Abortion Federation’s Singletary predicted: “Their best shot to roll back choice comes after 1996.”