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Abortion debate may pivot on Congress

By John Mercurio
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thirty years after Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion activists are optimistic their agenda will be met by a friendly Republican-controlled White House and Congress.

"We're hopeful and we're optimistic," said Genevieve Wood, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, an anti-abortion advocacy group. "There are a lot of measures that stand a very good chance of passage and the American public would be supportive of many of them."

Anti-abortion activists also enjoy longer-term hopes of reversing the landmark ruling, which marks its 30-year anniversary Wednesday, if President Bush nominates to the Supreme Court judges who oppose abortion rights. Six sitting justices, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist, are currently 65 or older.

"I'm very worried," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL. "The future of a woman's right to choose is in grave, grave doubt."

But the future of the abortion debate remains unclear for both sides.

Some conservatives openly worry, for example, that Bush would appoint White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and longtime friend, who they fear has moderate-to-liberal views on abortion rights, particularly on the issue of parental consent. "Gonzales is someone the pro-life community would be very concerned about," Wood said.

Furthermore, while they are well poised to make some progress this year, analysts say, anti-abortion activists may have to settle for relatively small gains, at least until the more pressing issues of war and the economy no longer dominate the national debate. If anti-abortion activists wait until 2004, Bush, who has shown a reluctance to lead a serious campaign against abortion rights, will be unlikely to fight for significant abortion restrictions while campaigning for a second term.

Highlighting the issue's importance in the 2004 presidential race, especially in the Democratic Party primaries, six of the party's candidates have accepted invitations to speak Tuesday evening at a dinner Michelman's group is holding in Washington to celebrate Roe v. Wade's anniversary.

Congress may decide on 'partial-birth' abortion laws

start quoteThere are a lot of measures that stand a very good chance of passage and the American public would be supportive of many of them.end quote
-- Genevieve Wood, Family Research Council

The biggest hurdle for anti-abortion activists remains the closely divided Senate, where slightly more than a majority is on record in support of Roe v. Wade. The National Right to Life Committee says 53 senators support the court ruling, while NARAL claims that only 33 senators are "fully pro-choice."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, who has regularly received a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee, has vowed to bring up several anti-abortion bills after they have passed the House, where anti-abortion Republicans hold far greater sway.

Anti-abortion activists say Congress will probably move quickly to ban certain late-term abortions that opponents call "partial-birth" abortions. The legislative activity could make it a crime to evade certain parental notification laws and make it a crime to hurt a fetus during an assault on a woman.

A legal challenge to the ban could come to the Supreme Court within a year or two. The challenge could also come from the states: abortion rights supporters counted 34 state laws limiting abortion last year.

The Supreme Court has previously ruled state laws against the "partial birth" procedure are not constitutional, concluding the term was vaguely defined, and did not take into account the physical safety of the mother.

Following the 2002 midterm elections, in which Democrats lost seats in Georgia, Missouri and Minnesota, supporters of the ban claim they now have the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster promised by critics of the measure.

States may weigh in on debate

NARAL's Michelman: Future of abortion rights
NARAL's Michelman: Future of abortion rights "is in grave, grave doubt."

When it comes to prohibiting partial-birth abortions, states have taken the lead. As of last May, 31 states had some form of law banning the procedure. Overall, 335 anti-abortion laws have been enacted in states since 1995, 34 of them in the past year, according to Michelman.

Anti-abortion activists also want Congress to make it a federal crime to circumvent state parental-consent laws, punish criminals who harm a fetus and give health providers and insurers the legal right to refuse to perform, pay for or counsel patients for abortion services.

Michelman said the one bright spot for her organization in the 2002 elections were gubernatorial races. Abortion-rights supporters took over governors' offices in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wisconsin, Illinois and New Mexico.

The battle over abortion could eventually shift back from Congress to the Supreme Court, Michelman said,.

"The Supreme Court stands in wait of nominees who are hostile to Roe v. Wade and the right to choose," she said. "They await a case that will come before it that could be used to overturn Roe, and the president is committed to using the judicial nomination process to effectuate the rolling back of a woman's right to choose. It's very troubling for us."

-- CNN Producer William Mears contributed to this report.

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