Obama Struggles For Middle Ground On Abortion

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Abortion rights activists argue with abortion opponents. i i

hide captionAbortion rights activists argue with abortion opponents in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

AlexWong/Getty Images
Abortion rights activists argue with abortion opponents.

Abortion rights activists argue with abortion opponents in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

AlexWong/Getty Images

President Obama has accomplished a lot in his first 100 days in office, but one campaign promise he's been unable to keep is a vow to make peace in one of the most polarizing issues in all of American politics: abortion.

"I believe that women should have the right to choose, but I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on," he said at a Wednesday night news conference.

But so far, all the president has managed to do is irritate both sides in the debate.

"As I've said before, the common ground he seeks for the pro-life movement is the burial ground," says Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.

Changing The Rules On Stem Cells

President Obama initially pleased the science community by lifting President Bush's strict limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but subsequent guidelines issued by the National Institutes of Health did not.

The guidelines say federal funding can be used only for research on discarded embryos left over in fertility clinics. Stanford stem cell scientist Irv Weissman says that would preclude many promising avenues of research.

"The cells that are discarded from the clinics represent people who can afford to go to the clinics and who have fertility problems," Weissman says. As a result, "there will never be a line that you know can get Parkinson's or juvenile diabetes or early onset heart attack due to genetic predilection."

Yet limiting the available stem cell lines did nothing to please the other side, either. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council says the guidelines "will force taxpayers to foot the bill for research that involves human embryo destruction."

John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, said President Obama may simply be trying to accomplish an impossible task.

"It may just be that the divisions over the reproductive and life issues are so deep-seated and so connected to political organizations that it's very, very difficult to change the nature of the debate in the short run," Green says.

Obama Not Seen As Neutral

The president's attempt to seek the middle ground is not helped by the fact that he's clearly allied with the abortion-rights side of the debate. Obama's voting record as a member of both the Illinois and U.S. senates was strongly in favor of abortion rights, and while he may have tried to temper some of his actions as president, he did fulfill several campaign promises made to abortion rights groups in addition to the stem cell policy change.

For example, on only this third full day in office, Obama lifted the so-called "Mexico City policy," which had barred U.S. financial aid to international family-planning groups that perform or advocate for abortion. The president did try to ease the blow for those who disagreed with his action by not making the change a day earlier, the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade abortion decision. That's a day, say aides, when abortion-rights supporters and opponents are focused on their differences.

But the criticism came anyway. "In these historic and challenging times, divisive actions like the reversal of the Mexico City policy are not in America's best interest," said House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.

The Department of Health and Human Services also moved to reverse President Bush's last-minute regulations allowing health care workers to refuse to provide or participate in any service that violates their beliefs.

"This has generated an enormous storm of protest, particularly among health care professionals across the country, who believe that they deserve this type of protection and that it is warranted by federal law," said Johnson of the right-to-life committee.

But again, rather than simply rescinding the so-called "conscience" rules, the department re-opened the subject for an additional 30-day comment period. "We recognize and understand that some providers have objections to providing abortions," said an HHS spokeswoman. "We want to ensure that current law protects them."

Compromise Possible?

Political scientist John Green says it might be politically best for Obama to try to let the issue go, as many of his predecessors have done. But he probably won't have that luxury. "It's going to be difficult for the president to de-emphasize the issue and to defuse the debate, because it's going to come up. And he will be forced to confront it and ultimately be forced to take sides," Green says.

The place it's likely to come up is in discussions of overhauling the nation's health care system — one of the president's top health care priorities.

Abortion rights supporters have made it clear that they see ensuring access as a key priority. "I think the big picture here is how do we make sure that all women and families, regardless of their income, can get access to the full range of health care options, and I think health care reform is going to provide a platform for doing that," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.

But abortion opponents will fight that just as hard. "We think that any [health overhaul] legislation that goes through Congress has to explicitly exclude abortion," said National Right to Life's Douglas Johnson. "We don't want the government running any abortion plan. If people want to buy abortion insurance, that should be purely a private transaction and not something the government is administering."

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