January 29, 2006

Abortion Rights Groups Say Battle Being Lost

By Carey Gillam

KANSAS CITY, Missouri -- In Wichita, Kansas, abortion rights supporters held a "chili for choice" fund-raising dinner. In Pierre, South Dakota, they plotted strategy in the "Back Alley" meeting hall. And in Minneapolis, volunteers led women past protesters into an abortion clinic.

It was just a typical week in Middle America where the decades-old debate over abortion rights has become a full-blown battle. But even as they continue to raise money and march around state capitols, the view from the pro-choice side is this is a fight they are losing.

The expected Senate confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court of conservative jurist Samuel Alito, who is favored by anti-abortion advocates, is seen as a key turning point. Yet it is only the latest in a series of blows to abortion rights advocates.

The pro-choice groups find themselves facing a virtual avalanche of state legislation that ranges from laws banning abortions in almost all circumstances to laws limiting the disbursement of birth control and restricting sex education.

President George W. Bush is a vocal supporter of the anti-abortion movement. Conservative church groups across the country increasingly oppose abortion.

"I think Roe in the short term will be dismantled," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "We have an anti-choice president, an anti-choice Congress and now ... with the confirmation of Judge Alito to the Supreme Court, we are seeing the potential for a very right-leaning, anti-choice Supreme Court."


A Pew Research Center survey conducted in November indicated that a majority of Americans see abortion as the most important issue before the Supreme Court, and polling shows that Americans are nearly evenly divided on the topic.

John Green, a senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said the appointment of Alito and the flood of anti-abortion legislation are tied to the increasing power of conservative religious groups.

"I do think it is a critical moment," Green said. "A lot really hinges on Alito and other judges who may be appointed in the near future. I could imagine in the next 10 years or so there could be steady changes in the law regarding abortion."

Anti-abortion groups say much has changed in the 33 years since the famed U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe V. Wade cleared the way for legalized abortion. They acknowledge the increased power of religious conservatives in public policy, but say other factors are central to the rise of anti-abortion legislation and what they say is waning public support for abortion.

Among the key factors is enhanced technology, such as 4-D ultra-sound, that allows pregnant women to clearly view the features of the fetus they might abort.

"The technology has allowed someone who before had no face and no voice to become an actual child," said Mary Spaulding Balch, director of state legislation for the National Right to Life Committee. "In the 70s and 80s whenever you debated abortion you talked about the mother. Now the baby is being brought into the debate."

Anti-abortion advocates say research into the speed of fetal development, and claims by some women that abortion has scarred them physically and emotionally, have all helped their cause.

"There is a growing public realization that abortion is an injustice, the destruction of an innocent human life," said American Life League executive director David Bereit.

"The presidency, the House and the Senate are made up of people who claim to be pro-life. With the Supreme Court nomination ... the planets are all aligning."


Indeed, all fifty states now have anti-abortion legislation either on the books or in the works, according to both sides. Twenty-six states outlaw abortions for a woman whose pregnancy is at least 12 weeks along. Measures introduced in South Dakota, Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio would ban nearly all abortions even in the first few weeks of pregnancy.

Other state laws under consideration would extend counseling requirements or waiting periods for women seeking abortions, add parental notification requirements, and set new regulations for abortion clinics. There are also measures that would allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control.

Abortion rights advocates say this year's mid-term elections and the 2008 presidential election will be critical to their efforts to turn back these new laws.

So on Thursday they paid $25 a head to eat chili in Wichita, Kansas. On Sunday they showed a film and talked about strategy in Pierre, South Dakota. And every Saturday, they escort women into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Minneapolis.

"It's a mystery to me how we've elected such right-wing lawmakers who are trying to keep government off our backs, but apparently don't mind putting government in our bedrooms," said Thelma Underberg, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota. "I think it is time to get active and push the pendulum back the other way."