For years, the abortion fight has been waged with in-your-face protests in front of abortion clinics and with graphic pictures of bloody fetuses.
Now, abortion foes are increasingly relying on a quieter strategy of carefully targeted political pressure.
The goal isn’t to fundamentally change abortion policy, it is to make gradual, but steady headway - or make adversaries pay a price if they don’t go along.
Judging by this past week’s events, the new approach is working.
Abortion opponents in Congress wanted to bar aid to international family planning groups that promote, perform or support abortion with their own money. But President Clinton refused. So abortion opponents retaliated.
They struck back by withholding votes for a bill expanding Clinton’s authority to negotiate trade agreements. Without their support, Clinton couldn’t get the last few votes he needed to pass the bill in the House.
They struck back by derailing a painstakingly negotiated plan for Congress to make overdue payments to the United Nations - at a time when the Clinton administration is trying to round up U.N. support for tough action against Iraq.
They struck back by blocking money for the International Monetary Fund to shore up weak economies overseas - at a time when the administration wanted to help calm jittery international markets.
And, in a related development, they blocked confirmation of Clinton’s choice for surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher, because he agrees with Clinton’s position on “partial birth” abortions.
As an election year looms, both sides predict that abortion will be injected into all sorts of matters.
“This is going to pop up anywhere as a part of legislation,” said Debra Dodson, senior researcher at Rutgers University Center for the American Woman and Politics.
“People often times think that the abortion issue isn’t relevant to politics today because it’s been settled by the Supreme Court, but there are many issues firmly planted in the political realm, and there are a myriad of battles to fight,” Dodson said.
With the general parameters of abortion already defined by court decisions and presidential vetoes, the battle has moved away from the extremes of allowing every kind of abortion or ending all abortions, to the middle ground, where both sides can spar over the details of regulations and policies.
“Under this president, incremental gains are about all we can realistically hope for at the federal level, so we are making some progress,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s largest anti-abortion group.
“No one really thinks we’re going to ban abortions anytime soon,” said Clyde Wilcox, a Georgetown University government professor and author of a book on abortion. So, he said, abortion advocates and opponents are “negotiating around the margins, jockeying for political position, to try to get what they can, when they can.”
Right now, the anti-abortionists have the upper hand, buoyed by a Republican-controlled Congress where more than half of the senators and two-thirds of the representatives oppose abortion.
Since Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, for the first time since the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision protected women’s right to abortion, 81 abortion-related votes have occurred on the House and Senate floors. And abortion foes prevailed in 71 of them, according to figures compiled by an abortion-rights group, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).
Some abortion experts say these provisions succeeded because they focused on subtle points that don’t register on most peoples’ radars.
“These efforts are most effective when they don’t try to constrain middle-class women’s access to abortion,” said Margaret Little, a senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, a Washington-based bioethics think tank. “They just seem to put a few regulations in the way, but they don’t directly threaten access for most people, so the American public is relatively complacent about it.”
The anti-abortionists’ success is even drawing grudging admiration from their opponents.
“If they tried to outwardly attack abortion, they would fail miserably and create an enormous backlash in the country because the majority of people support a woman’s right to choose,” said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL in Washington, D.C.
So, she said, “They are trying hard to dismantle our constitutional rights in a piecemeal way that won’t alarm the American public.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: The year in Congress Here are the main abortion issues that came before Congress this year: Congress passed the “partial birth abortion” bill, which bans and criminalizes certain late-term abortion procedures, but President Clinton vetoed the legislation. Abortion opponents are expected to try to override the veto next year. Congress banned abortion for women in federal prisons. Congress barred federal employees from choosing health insurance that covers abortion. Congress prohibited women serving in the U.S. military overseas, or military dependents overseas, to get an abortion at military hospital even if they pay for it with their own money. Congress voted to prohibit federal spending for research on human embryos. Congress banned federal money and revenue raised locally by the District of Columbia to go to abortions for low-income women. The House rejected a proposal that would have required teens to notify their parents before they could receive any contraceptive services from federally financed family-planning clinics. The Senate rejected a measure to ban federal spending on fetal-tissue research for medical purposes. Knight-Ridder