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Supreme Court Ruling Brings Split in Antiabortion Movement

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

In a highly visible rift in the anti-abortion movement, a coalition of evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic groups is attacking a longtime ally, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson.

Using rhetoric that they have reserved in the past for abortion clinics, some of the coalition's leaders accuse Dobson and other national antiabortion leaders of building an "industry" around relentless fundraising and misleading information.

At the center of the dispute is the Supreme Court's April 18 decision upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a federal law against a procedure in which a doctor partially delivers a late-term fetus before crushing its skull.

Dobson and many other antiabortion leaders hailed the 5 to 4 ruling as a victory; abortion-rights organizations saw it as a defeat. But six weeks later, its consequences have been, in part, the reverse.

"The Supreme Court decision totally galvanized our supporters" by raising the prospect that the court could soon overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 opinion that established a woman's right to choose an abortion, said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "Both our direct-mail and online giving got a serious bump," she said.

Among antiabortion activists, meanwhile, the decision in Gonzales v. Carhart has reopened an old split between incrementalists who support piecemeal restrictions and purists who seek a wholesale prohibition on abortions.

In an open letter to Dobson that was published as a full-page ad May 23 in the Colorado Springs Gazette, Focus on the Family's hometown newspaper, and May 30 in the Washington Times, the heads of five small but vocal groups called the Carhart decision "wicked," and accused Dobson of misleading Christians by applauding it.

Carhart is even "more wicked than Roe" because it is "not a ban, but a partial-birth abortion manual" that affirms the legality of late-term abortions "as long as you follow its guidelines," the ads said. "Yet, for many years you have misled the Body of Christ about the ban, and now about the ruling itself."

A Focus on the Family spokesman said that Dobson would not comment. But the organization's vice president, Tom Minnery, said that Dobson rejoiced over the ruling "because we, and most pro-lifers, are sophisticated enough to know we're not going to win a total victory all at once. We're going to win piece by piece."

Doctors adopted the late-term procedure "out of convenience," Minnery added. "The old procedure, which is still legal, involves using forceps to pull the baby apart in utero, which means there is greater legal liability and danger of internal bleeding from a perforated uterus. So we firmly believe there will be fewer later-term abortions as a result of this ruling."

Brian Rohrbough, president of Colorado Right to Life and a signer of the ads, disagreed.

"All you have to do is read the ruling, and you will find that this will never save a single child, because even though the justices say this one technique is mostly banned -- not completely banned -- there are lots of other techniques, and they even encourage abortionists to find less shocking means to kill late-term babies," he said.

Another signer, the Rev. Bob Enyart, a Christian talk radio host and pastor of the Denver Bible Church, said the real issue is fundraising.

"Over the past seven years, the partial-birth abortion ban as a fundraising technique has brought in over a quarter of a billion dollars" for major antiabortion groups, "but the ban has no authority to prevent a single abortion, and pro-life donors were never told that," he said. "That's why we call it the pro-life industry."

In Rohrbough's view, partisan politics is also involved.

"What happened in the abortion world is that groups like National Right to Life, they're really a wing of the Republican Party, and they're not geared to push for personhood for an unborn child -- they're geared to getting Republicans elected," he said. "So we're seeing these ridiculous laws like the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban put forward, and then we're deceived about what they really do."

Chuck Donovan, executive vice president of the Family Research Council, a Washington advocacy group allied with Dobson, said the dispute is the most visible rift in the antiabortion movement in at least a decade. He called the ads "a bit bizarre" and said they "might be an attention-getting device" for some of the signers, which also included the heads of the American Life League, Operation Rescue/Operation Save America and the Catholic group Human Life International.

"But," he added, "there are certainly a fair number of people, including in our own building, who think the [Supreme Court] decision's practical importance has been overrated -- that, practically, there may not be even one fewer abortion in the country as a result."

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