With GOP Rise, Abortion Foes Gain Confidence

This weekend marks the 38th anniversary of the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's Julie Rovner about the latest shift in abortion politics, with the recent health care overhaul and the overwhelming Republican victory at the polls this past November.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This weekend, those on both sides of the abortion debate are recognizing the 38th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade. Yet more than a generation after the court legalized the procedure nationwide, the debate is as polarized and divisive as ever.

On Capitol Hill this past week, Republicans followed up their successful vote on a bill to repeal the health overhaul law with the announcement that they would be voting on further abortion restrictions.

NPR's Julie Rovner is here to discuss what this means. Welcome back, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Thanks, Liane.

HANSEN: Health care and abortion are among the most contentious issues on the domestic agenda, yet the new House Republican majority is making them a priority. Why?

ROVNER: Well, you know, they may be contentious within the population as a whole, but they're actually not all that contentious within the new House Republican majority. In fact, there aren't that many things that the new House Republicans agree on, but two of those things appear to be that they want to repeal the health law, and they want to put more restrictions on federal abortion funding.

HANSEN: Are those two things linked?

ROVNER: Yes, in fact, they are. And they're not only linked, but they also fulfill another useful goal for the Republicans, which is to divide the Democrats. Last year's health bill, as you'll recall, almost didn't become law because Democrats were so split over abortion. In the end, the bill did ban almost all federal funding for abortion, which is actually the status quo under restrictions that Congress renews every year in a series of different spending bills.

But abortion opponents wanted to make those restrictions permanent so they wouldn't have to do it every year. Abortion rights groups didn't want that to happen. In the end, they fought to a very uneasy draw, with President Obama issuing an executive order banning federal funding for abortion - which got those last few Democratic votes that they needed.

There's still a lot of dispute about what the law does and doesn't do insofar as banning abortion. Several Democrats who oppose abortion actually lost their seats last year to Republican opponents, who charged that they voted for expanded abortion funding. So now, Republicans have introduced a bill they say would close abortion loopholes in the health law that could enable abortion funding in the future.

Then they also have a second bill that would make permanent those year- by-year restrictions on federal abortion funding.

HANSEN: What does that mean for Democrats?

ROVNER: Well, when it comes to abortion, both parties have members on both sides of the issue. But right now, it's fair to say that there are fewer Republicans who support abortion rights then there are Democrats who oppose abortion. And in the Senate, in particular, there are way more Democrats than Republicans who are up for re-election in 2012, and many of them are from states that it's going to be very difficult for Democrats, like Virginia and Montana and Florida. So it's hard to imagine that those senators want to vote repeatedly on abortion, which is, of course, exactly what Republicans would like to force them to do.

HANSEN: What happens next?

ROVNER: Well, you know, these hot-button social issues get introduced, often, with a lot of fanfare and then put on the back burner. But I don't think that's going to happen this time - first because as I said, it suits Republicans' political agenda to try to force Democrats to take these repeated abortion votes; but second, the House Republican leadership seems really eager to do this.

Speaker John Boehner spoke about this frequently during the election campaign and since he has become speaker. Plus, you have, now, the chairman of the House health subcommittee on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Joe Pitts, a longtime abortion foe. So he's in a position to actually move some of these bills. So I think we're going to see repeated abortion votes as we go into the next weeks and months.

HANSEN: Will the same thing happen that happened with the health overhaul repeal in the House? I mean, it's going to be dead in the Senate. Will it be the same for the abortion issue?

ROVNER: No, probably not. The health bill would have to be really brought up as a single bill. A lot of these abortion issues can be brought up as amendments to other bills, particularly as amendments to spending bills. It's easier to force votes on a lot of abortion issues, and I think that's exactly what Senate Republicans intend to do.

HANSEN: NPR's Julie Rovner. Thank you, Julie.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

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