Democrats Seek to Avert Abortion Clashes

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 21, 2007

Eager to avoid a resumption of the culture wars, the new Democratic leaders are trying to tiptoe around the abortion issue by promoting legislation to encourage birth control and assist women who decide to proceed with unwanted pregnancies.

Democrats acknowledge that they alienated many social conservatives and churchgoing voters during years of combat with Republicans over the explosive issue of reproductive rights, and they want to change their emphasis to woo some of those voters back into the fold.

On the opening day of the 110th Congress on Jan. 4, for instance, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), an abortion foe, introduced a bill to increase funding for family planning and to improve access to emergency contraception. The measure has been endorsed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a champion of abortion rights, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), a leading Democratic presidential prospect.

These and other initiatives are a far cry from previous Democratic efforts that drew strong conservative opposition, including funding for abortions for women in the military serving overseas and U.N. family-planning programs in Third World countries.

"There are few more divisive issues in America today than abortion, but there is an opportunity to find common ground if we are willing to join together and seize it," Reid said recently. "The rate of unintended pregnancies is unacceptably high." Legislation such as his, he added, "can reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and the resulting abortions in America today."

During the past decade of Republican rule, Congress became a battleground for opposing forces in the abortion debate. Nearly 150 bills and amendments have been offered with the aim of restricting the procedure. Democrats and pro-abortion-rights Republicans blocked most of those measures, but in the process they alienated a vital group of voters -- religious moderates who support, in principle, the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide but who are morally squeamish about terminating pregnancies.

Now Democrats are seeking to reach these "abortion grays" through their own legislative proposals, all focused on preventing unwanted pregnancies. The initiatives, including several in development for more than a year, represent an attempt to broaden the discussion beyond the traditional framework of whether abortion should be legal. By recasting their approach, Democrats hope to appeal to "grays" in suburban areas and Midwestern towns who have voted Republican in recent elections.

"We believe deeply that we can do better than we're doing in our country when it comes to preventing unintended pregnancies and helping to support mothers and children," Clinton said in announcing her support for Reid's initiative.

In the House, Reps. Tim Ryan (Ohio), a Democrat who opposes abortion, and Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), a member of the Democratic leadership who supports abortion rights, are backing measures to make contraception easier to obtain, while providing aid to women who proceed with unintended pregnancies. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) helped smooth the path for the Ryan-DeLauro bill, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the fourth-ranking House Democrat, is a cosponsor. "This is something that Democrats are really into," Emanuel said.

At least four similar bills are circulating. Antiabortion Democrats who are reluctant to promote contraception use are backing a more limited effort to help pregnant women and single mothers.

"You're going to see a change in the tone of the debate, and a move toward more solutions, rather than the divisiveness," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion rights group that signed on early to the prevention agenda. "What we're going to see in this Congress is some problem-solving."

The 2006 election results sent mixed signals about where voters stand on abortion. On one hand, pro-abortion-rights Democrats won in 22 House districts that had been represented by antiabortion Republicans. Three Senate seats also flipped from anti- to pro-abortion-rights candidates, and antiabortion ballot initiatives failed in three states, including South Dakota, where voters blocked an effort to outlaw the procedure.

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