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Obama Plan Aims to Appease Both Sides of Abortion Issue

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By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009

President Obama is trying to blunt the edge of perhaps the sharpest, most divisive wedge issue in the country: abortion.

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In a series of moves, he is attempting to nudge the debate away from the morality and legality of abortion and toward a goal he hopes both sides can endorse: decreasing the number of women who terminate their pregnancies by addressing the reasons they might choose the procedure.

The strategy is being met by deep skepticism from many prominent antiabortion activists, but it has been embraced by some others as well as by leading abortion rights activists, who hope it could fundamentally reshape one of the nation's most intransigent political stalemates.

"For good reason, there are sincere and deep feelings on both sides," Joshua DuBois said yesterday after being named to head the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which will help spearhead the effort. "But there is common ground we can find."

The campaign carries potential risks, however, including angering Obama's most ardent supporters if they think he is compromising too much, or alienating the nascent group of antiabortion allies who have aligned themselves with him if they end up feeling betrayed.

"He faces risks from both the right and left for pursuing this strategy," said Cynthia R. Daniels, a Rutgers University political scientist. "Of course, there are always risks involved in trying to shift to a new paradigm."

Obama's approach has already been tested: Three days after his inauguration, he lifted a ban on U.S. funding for international health programs that provide abortions and abortion counseling, and last week he persuaded House Democrats to drop from the stimulus package a plan to allow Medicaid to expand contraceptive services.

Both moves produced mixed results: The international funding decision thrilled family-planning proponents but infuriated abortion opponents, even though some praised Obama for doing it quietly and for postponing the announcement one day to avoid the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The decision to back off the Medicaid family-planning expansion was welcomed by some conservatives but surprised and disappointed women's health advocates.

"What he's finding is that most of the interest groups are organized on sharp ideological divisions," said Amy E. Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois. "What's more interesting to me is how the average voter will respond."

Obama's approach will be tested again by upcoming decisions on sensitive issues, including how he deals with the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, which is controversial because the cells are obtained by destroying human embryos. Obama is also under pressure to reverse a Bush administration regulation that protects the rights of health-care workers who object to providing abortion, the morning-after emergency contraceptive pill and other types of medical care, and to cut funding for abstinence-only sex education.

"When it comes to an issue like abortion, any related issue becomes a de facto litmus test," Black said.

Despite the difficulties, various advocates and members of Congress across the ideological spectrum said they remain optimistic.


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