Abortion rights activists get ready for another year of challenges

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; A04

CHICAGO -- Supporters of a woman's right to choose an abortion had reason to feel confident a year ago, with a newly elected Democratic president whose party controlled the House and the Senate.

But not long after President Obama lifted a ban on U.S. funding for international health groups that support abortion, a gunman killed the nation's most prominent abortion doctor, George Tiller. And by year's end, congressional majorities voted to limit access to abortion coverage in proposed health-care reform legislation. The fact that an antiabortion Michigan Democrat won the day stunned abortion-rights advocates.

"We think the potential now for even more mischief and more attacks on pro-choice politics is very, very evident," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "The other side is really going to attack on every front. They're just emboldened."

The new year finds the opposing political forces at loggerheads once more, as both sides prepare for health-care negotiations and events surrounding the 37th anniversary, on Jan. 22, of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

The federal fight over health care is "the primary focus of all the mainstream pro-life movements," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. At the state level, activists are dueling over a fresh batch of antiabortion ballot initiatives and midterm candidacies.

All eyes on Kansas

In Kansas this week, jury selection will begin in the first-degree murder case against Scott Roeder, who is accused of killing Tiller in his Wichita church on May 31. Soon after the killing, Tiller's family closed his clinic, a long-standing refuge for women and a site of daily protests that often turned bitter.

Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert ruled Friday that attorneys for Roeder can argue that he shot Tiller to protect the lives of unborn babies -- and, therefore, could be guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder.

The judge said Roeder could not argue that the killing was actually justified but rather that he had an unreasonable but honest belief that the circumstances justified deadly force.

While Roeder's supporters welcomed the ruling, one major abortion rights group condemned it. "Allowing an argument that this cold-blooded, premeditated murder could be voluntary manslaughter will embolden anti-abortion extremists and could result in 'open season' on doctors across the country," Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, warned in a statement.

Mainstream antiabortion groups have denounced the slaying as the act of a disturbed figure on the far fringe of society and political life. Johnson said the National Right to Life Committee condemns "in the most unequivocal ways violent activity."

"Most people recognize that individuals like that can crop up and associate themselves with any kind of cause," Johnson said. He added that the Roeder case, however prominent, would have no influence on the abortion component of the health-care debate in Congress.

From Hill, 'a wake-up call'

It was a vote last year in Congress, where the action over abortion had become less intense than in many statehouses, that startled and dismayed abortion rights forces. A provision sponsored by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) would prevent women who receive federal insurance subsidies from buying insurance that pays for abortions.

"The Stupak amendment was a wake-up call, and a big surprise to people all over the country who . . . generally thought that the basic right was in place and basic access was secure," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.

If Congress approves a health-care bill and Obama signs it into law, the new legislation, in whatever form it takes, will probably leave significant decisions to the states, where activists and organizations on both sides are preparing to mobilize.

"By necessity, things will change in a variety of ways," Greenberger said. "And the whole question about coverage for abortion services has been put in the spotlight in a way that it never has been before. There's a whole new arena that will generate a lot of heat."

Antiabortion forces' fight

If they cannot make it illegal through federal law or the courts, opponents of abortion intend to make the procedure harder to obtain.

Already, successful legislative campaigns by antiabortion forces have quietly changed the way women in many states access abortion. Waiting periods, notification laws, required sonograms and mandated scripts have been added to medical protocols, to the satisfaction of abortion opponents and the consternation of providers.

Legislators in Montana introduced more antiabortion bills in 2009 than during any other session in the past 20 years, said Allyson Hagen, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Montana.

With the state legislature out of session, she expects this year's focus to be on political races and a proposed constitutional amendment that would establish "personhood" from the moment of conception. Similar ballot initiatives are being pursued elsewhere, although a proposed amendment in Colorado lost in 2008 by 46 points.

"Personhood" supporters are hurrying to gather 49,000 signatures by mid-June, said lead organizer Ann Bukacek, who said a constitutional amendment would lay the groundwork for an end to abortion. Two years ago, she said, the effort fell 17,000 signatures short because the group got a late start.

"I think we'll get it this time, and if we don't, we'll do it again," said Bukacek, an internist at Hosanna Health Care in Kalispell. "We'll never stop. These are innocent, defenseless human beings who are being slaughtered. We're never going to stop fighting for their rights."

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