(Reposted from www.kansascity.com as it's registration-only)

Posted on Mon, Nov. 15, 2004

Conditions seem right for a fight on abortion

By MATT STEARNS The Star's Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — The Arlen Specter imbroglio is just the beginning.

Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican in line to lead the Senate Judiciary Committee, came under withering attack from conservatives after he questioned whether the Senate would confirm an appointment to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade.

With a larger Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, a social conservative movement emboldened by electoral success, and the likelihood of Supreme Court vacancies, both sides in the abortion issue see the coming year as significant.

Besides the conflict over Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide, other abortion-related items could be contentious.

Two bills in Congress designed to chip away at abortion rights are expected to gain support, joining last year's ban on so-called partial-birth abortions.

Proponents of abortion rights, meantime, see a woman's right to choose in its greatest peril. NARAL Pro-Choice America already has a 30-second television ad ready to run when a Supreme Court vacancy occurs. The commercial issues a dire warning of what women might lose if the Roe decision is overturned.

“If you could see the threat coming last year, the battle has moved from the horizon to the foreground,” said David Seldin, communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Fifty-five Republicans will be in the Senate next year instead of the current 51, making it easier for the majority to get the 60 votes necessary under Senate rules to break impasses.

“The Senate is often our problem, and we're looking better in the Senate,” said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life.

Among the new senators are intense abortion opponents. Seldin noted, for example, that incoming Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn has advocated the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions.

The biggest confrontations will be over judicial appointments, especially if an opening occurs on the Supreme Court.

With Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, suffering from an aggressive form of cancer, and other justices said to be considering retirement, most expect President Bush could pick two to four justices in his second term — potentially enough to overturn Roe.

The issue's high-stakes nature already is on display, as Specter deals with the aftermath of his postelection comments.

Conservative interest groups have asked Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to prevent Specter from taking over the committee. Specter has backed off his comments, but his status as chairman-in-waiting remains uncertain. A coalition of conservative groups is organizing an anti-Specter protest this week in Washington.

Sen. Sam Brownback, an ardent abortion opponent, said he had not taken a position on Specter's ascension.

Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, said he was surprised that the Specter matter was the biggest issue from his constituents since the election. He said people were even talking about it at his daughter's volleyball awards banquet.
Bush has said he would not have a litmus test on abortion for Supreme Court appointees.

In the second presidential debate, however, Bush said he would not appoint a justice who would condone the Dred Scott decision, an 1857 case that affirmed slavery.

Abortion opponents have long equated Dred Scott and Roe v. Wade. President Reagan wrote in 1983 that like Roe v. Wade, Dred Scott “denied the value of certain human lives.”
Appellate court appointments, several of which were blocked by Democrats in the 108th Congress, also are seen as an important battleground because appellate decisions are often the last word on many cases and because these courts are often a training ground for future Supreme Court justices.
Besides the judiciary, the 109th Congress also is expected to see more action on legislation to limit access to abortions.
Last year, Brownback introduced the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act. It would require that any woman considering an abortion be told that her fetus might feel pain during the procedure and that an anesthetic be offered for the fetus if the woman is 20 weeks or more pregnant.

The bill was referred to committee, and no action was taken. Brownback said he would re-introduce it next year.

Another bill introduced last year, known as the Child Custody Protection Act, would make it illegal to take a pregnant minor across state lines for an abortion to circumvent state parental-notification laws.

That bill, too, was referred to committee with no further action taken.

“I think we've got a good shot at moving both bills through,” Brownback said.

Sen. Jim Talent, who co-sponsored both bills in the 108th Congress, said he hoped the bills would come up again next year.

“I think they're good proposals with broad support,” the Missouri Republican said. “I'm not sure the majority leader is going to want to spend a lot of time” on abortion-related legislation, given that so many top Bush administration priorities seemed likely to finally move forward, such as the energy bill and tort reform.

Others, however, said that because the GOP owed so much to evangelical Christians, the administration and Senate leaders might want to bring up the bills.

Any legislation would likely wind up in the courts, as the “partial-birth” abortion ban has, thus highlighting for both sides the importance of judicial appointments.

“If you listed the top 10 threats in the Senate this year to a woman's right to choose, Nos. 1 through 10 would be debate over Supreme Court nominees,” Seldin said. “That is the whole ball of wax.”

Agreed Brownback: “Judges are the key issue.”

To reach Matt Stearns, call (202) 383-6009 or send e-mail to mstearns@krwashington.com.

First glance

• Possible Supreme Court vacancies and a larger Republican majority in the U.S. Senate are two reasons the abortion issue will be a hot topic next year.