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.
On the other hand, five antiabortion Democrats were elected to the House from districts in the industrial Midwest and South, conservative regions that the Democratic Party had been struggling to infiltrate. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), who is Catholic and opposes abortion, won a Senate seat with strong Democratic establishment backing -- although his father, the late Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey Sr., had been barred from addressing the 1992 Democratic National Convention because of his antiabortion views. A slim majority of the Senate leans toward favoring abortion rights, but the Democratic-led House remains antiabortion by a narrow margin. As one abortion rights activist put it, "We've made gains, but we don't have carte blanche on anything."
Democrats hope their proposals for preventing unwanted pregnancies will become a bridge within the party and even across the aisle to some Republicans, a way to reconcile moral reservations with legal rights.
Third Way, a moderate Democratic policy group, coined the term "abortion grays" to define the nearly two-thirds of voters who hold mixed views on the subject. Rachel Laser, Third Way's abortion expert, has counseled numerous Democratic candidates and lawmakers on prevention rhetoric. In a poll the group commissioned last summer, 69 percent of voters said they supported the goal of reducing the number of abortions "while still preserving the basic right to have one."
And yet Democrats have been reluctant even to mention abortion in recent years. Laser reviewed Senate Web sites and found that Democratic members used the word fewer than 350 times, while Republicans raised the issue 1,900 times. Democrats "also are prone to make conflicting statements about abortion or to couple their pro-choice voting records with a statement professing their personal opposition to abortion," one of her Third Way memos said. "This comes across as defensive, confusing and disingenuous."
The Reid bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), would increase funds for family-planning services, ensure contraception equity in health insurance plans and improve access to emergency contraception. The Ryan-DeLauro legislation would expand access to contraception, fund sex-education programs, improve health-care access for low-income women and children, and extend adoption tax credits.
There are still minefields, as Ryan discovered when he entered the abortion fray in the House. A 33-year-old Catholic who represents a working-class Ohio district, he has sought to jostle Democratic thinking on abortion since his service in the state legislature. After he was elected to Congress in 2002, Ryan reached out to the antiabortion group Democrats for Life. The group was devising what evolved into a foundation of the prevention agenda, a plan to lower the abortion rate by 95 percent over 10 years.
In late 2005, Democrats for Life discussed a possible collaboration with Third Way, but an alliance never materialized because many antiabortion Democrats, particularly Catholics, were reluctant to endorse contraception provisions.
"We wanted a bill that all pro-life Democrats could feel comfortable supporting," said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life. But Ryan decided that Democrats had to go further, and he shopped his bill around the House without the group's support. It has since become the leading Democratic vehicle in that chamber. "We cannot have a legitimate abortion-reduction bill without contraception," Ryan said.
But the Democrats for Life bill also has gained broad support and even has attracted some Republican backers. Among its provisions: expanding welfare and health benefits for pregnant women and closing health-insurance loopholes that limit prenatal care. At least three states -- Alabama, Michigan and Virginia -- are considering smaller versions of the House package, Day said.
"In the ideal world, there would have been just one bill," she said. "But it's a positive step that our party has been talking about this. Two bills is a good thing."