Advocates Want Bush Abortion Policies Reversed

Memo To The President

In this occasional series, NPR will follow the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that will outline the many issues and challenges facing the new occupant of the White House. From a broken military to a troubled economy to a National Park Service in need of a major overhaul — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

Reproductive health is one of the most politically perilous issues any new administration has to deal with. But there's some good news on this front for President-elect Obama: He may face lower expectations from abortion-rights backers than some of his predecessors.

There's no question that the president-elect supports abortion rights.

"What I have said is that women should make the decision in consultation with their priests or pastor, their doctor, their family members and in consultation with their beliefs," Obama said at the forum for presidential candidates at Saddleback Church in August.

But the incoming chief executive also says he wants to find consensus. "There surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, 'We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby,'" he said during the final presidential debate in October.

Of course, just about every president has said he wants to find common ground on abortion and other reproductive health issues. The problem is there's not that much common ground to be found.

Instead, what politicians tend to find are immediate demands from the groups on the side of the issue that supported them during the campaign. In Obama's case that would include NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood.

The heads of both of those groups say their members are, indeed, expecting quick action from the incoming administration.

"We've had eight years of George W. Bush's anti-choice effort, and there's got to be, first, initial work in reversing all of the negative that has happened in these past eight years," said NARAL President Nancy Keenan.

One of the first things that usually happens when the presidency changes parties is that the new executive uses the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling, which conveniently occurs just two days after the inauguration, to issue a series of executive orders on reproductive-related issues.

Obama has already hinted that these might include overturning President Bush's limits on federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells and rescinding the so-called "global gag rule." That policy bars aid to international family-planning groups that perform or in any way advocate for abortion.

But what makes this year different from the last time a Democratic president took over from a Republican is that beyond those immediate changes, abortion-rights groups say, they may not press for more sweeping changes that would take legislative action by Congress.

Those include actions like repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortions for poor women, or pushing for passage of the "Freedom of Choice Act," which is intended to write the protections of Roe v. Wade into law, but which would also eliminate many abortion restrictions the court has allowed over the years, such as parental notification or consent laws.

"You've got to be practical, you've got to be realistic here," says Keenan of NARAL. "You have to look at the votes. And I just don't believe the votes are there" for some of the things abortion-rights groups would like to do.

Douglas Johnson, federal legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, agrees with Keenan. He says that while his side may be playing defense next year, don't count it out.

"We're going to mount a very vigorous defense of the existing pro-life policies," he said. "The ban on partial-birth abortions, the Hyde Amendment, and these other policies have broad popular support and they were won with great effort, and we certainly are going to defend them to the best of our ability."

Meanwhile, Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood said abortion-rights groups are taking seriously Obama's pledge to try to change the tone of the debate.

"I think the American people are ready for us to get ideology out of the government and focus on solving problems," she said. Richards says her group will be happy to focus on things like providing preventive health services to women, including birth control, which is far more popular among lawmakers.

But the biggest abortion fight of all could come in a relatively unexpected venue, as part of the effort to overhaul the nation's healthcare system. If there is a national health plan, abortion-rights groups will want to make sure abortion is a covered benefit and anti-abortion groups will want to stop that. It could make most previous abortion fights pale in comparison.

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