Ruling Draws Lawmakers Toward Political Minefield

By Shailagh Murray and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Supreme Court ruling yesterday resurrects the politically charged issue of reproductive rights just in time for the 2008 campaign season, but it may not be a fight the Democrats want.

All the 2008 Democratic presidential candidates, along with many congressional Democrats, issued statements opposing the court's 5 to 4 ruling upholding a ban on a type of abortion, and GOP candidates uniformly applauded the decision.

But despite the Democrats' harsh words, many in the party acknowledge they won control of Congress in November in part because they neutralized abortion and other hot-button social issues, fielding candidates who shared the more nuanced views of Midwestern and suburban voters.

As the 2008 cycle gets underway, Democrats have sought to shift the legislative debate away from the legal restrictions that Republicans sought for years to impose and toward the less polarizing ground of preventing unwanted pregnancies. Democratic leaders said they had no immediate plans to challenge the ruling through legislation.

But the court's ruling disrupts the party's emphasis on prevention by turning the political focus back to the legality of a controversial late-term procedure that opponents call "partial birth" abortion. Congress approved a ban on the procedure in 2003 nearly 2 to 1 in both chambers.

"The problem with the abortion debate is that it has been dominated by small-scale problems" such as parental notification and the controversial method, said Matt Bennett, a spokesman for Third Way, a progressive think tank that has promoted an emphasis on pregnancy prevention. "The broader issues related to abortion remain: How do you address the situation that we face in this country, the huge number of abortions, without infringing on people's rights?"

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) are among the Democrats who have encouraged the change of course. Reid, an abortion foe who supported the 2003 ban, introduced legislation on Jan. 4 -- the first day of the new Congress -- to increase funding for family-planning programs and to improve access to emergency contraception.

His 28 co-sponsors include Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Barack Obama (Ill.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), three Democratic presidential contenders. The Democrats' hope is take the offensive, forcing Republicans to confront their own divisions on birth control and sex education.

"We should get the Republicans to join with us in prevention," Reid said. "But every time that we get in a position where we can do some really good things, the people from the White House and the Republicans basically step in and stop us."

Pelosi's statement on yesterday's ruling was three sentences long and focused on the legal repercussions for doctors who perform abortions. "Criminalizing doctors for performing medically necessary procedures to save a woman's life or protect her health is wrong," said Pelosi, who has helped to clear the path for prevention legislation in her chamber.

Some of the toughest Democratic rhetoric came from the party's presidential hopefuls, who are vying for support from the party's left in the primary. Biden voted for the ban in 2003, and Clinton and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), another presidential contender, voted against it.

Democratic former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who was running for president at that time as well, missed both votes on the issue but issued a quick response yesterday. "This hard right turn is a stark reminder of why Democrats cannot afford to lose the 2008 election," he said.

Obama, who was not serving in the Senate at the time, said in a statement yesterday: "I strongly disagree with today's Supreme Court ruling, which dramatically departs from previous precedents safeguarding the health of pregnant women."

Clinton called the decision "a dramatic departure from four decades of Supreme Court rulings that upheld a woman's right to choose and recognized the importance of women's health." She added, "It is precisely this erosion of our constitutional rights that I warned against when I opposed the nominations of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito."

For Republicans, the ruling helped to obscure the varied records on abortion held by the party's presidential contenders.

"The Supreme Court reached the correct conclusion in upholding the congressional ban on partial birth abortion. I agree with it," former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who supports abortion rights.

When he ran for the Senate in 2000, Giuliani expressed support for President Bill Clinton's veto of a similar ban that included an exception for cases in which the life of the pregnant woman was in danger. Giuliani has since expressed support for the 2003 ban, which included an exception to protect the life of a pregnant woman.

Like Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney released a brief statement praising the decision. "This decision represents a step forward in protecting the weakest and most innocent among us," said Romney, who once supported abortion rights.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who voted for the ban in 2003, called the ruling "a victory for those who cherish the sanctity of life and integrity of the judiciary."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company