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Obama Struggles For Middle Ground On Abortion

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Obama Struggles For Middle Ground On Abortion

Obama Struggles For Middle Ground On Abortion

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

President Obama has scored a number of political wins in his first hundred days, but on one issue, he has encountered mostly frustration.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports on the president's unsuccessful efforts to find a middle ground in the polarized debate over abortion.

JULIE ROVNER: There's no denying that President Obama is pro-choice. He voted that way as a member of both the Illinois and the U.S. Senate. But he still talks about finding consensus in the debate. He mentioned it again last night at his press conference.

President BARACK OBAMA: 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.

ROVNER: And so, in carrying out some of his pro-choice promises, Mr. Obama took some pains not to antagonize the other side. For example, he did rescind the so-called Mexico City Policy that barred funding for international family planning groups that perform or promote abortion. But he purposefully did not do it, as expected, on the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade. He waited an extra day.

And he didn't move immediately to repeal controversial Bush administration rules allowing health-care workers to decline to provide services, such as abortion, that violate their beliefs. Instead, he's taking public comment first. But those small concessions didn't do much to mollify opponents of abortion.

Mr. DOUGLAS JOHNSON (Legislative Director, National Right To Life Committee): If we look at substance, Barack Obama has already established the most pro-abortion record of any president this early in his term.

ROVNER: Douglas Johnson is legislative director of the National Right To Life Committee.

Mr. JOHNSON: The substance of his policies are hard-line, pro-abortion policies.

ROVNER: President Obama is also struggling for a middle ground on the related issue of embryonic stem cell research. Those cells show promise in treating a wide array of diseases. President Bush severely limited federal funding to certain stem cell lines.

President Obama opened the door to more lines, but funding would still be limited to those coming from embryos left over in fertility clinics. That policy is drawing criticism from both the Right to Life community for going too far, and from scientists for not going far enough. According to Douglas Johnson and his allies…

Mr. JOHNSON: The president has issued orders that open the door to federal funding of research that requires killing human embryos.

ROVNER: But limiting stem cell lines to embryos from fertility clinics is too restrictive, say stem cell scientists like Irv Weissman of Stanford University, because new embryos couldn't be created specifically for research.

Dr. IRV WEISSMAN (Director, Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine; Stanford University): There will never be a line that you will know can get Parkinson's or juvenile diabetes or Lou Gehrig's disease due to genetic predilection.

ROVNER: Despite the president's efforts, these may be issues where there's simply no middle ground to be had, says political scientist John Greene of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Mr. JOHN GREENE (Political Scientist, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): But it simply may be that we're looking at a very deep cleavage in public opinion and among activist groups over these types of issues, where moderate positions get attacked from both sides and therefore, it's very difficult to craft a moderate position that will be successful.

ROVNER: On the other hand, says Greene, this is a series of debates that's not going away anytime soon.

Mr. GREENE: It's going to be difficult for the president to de-emphasize the issue and to diffuse the debate because it's going to come up. And he will be forced to confront it, and may ultimately be forced to take sides.

ROVNER: And that's going to happen in a big way in the upcoming health-care overhaul debate. Cecile Richards heads Planned Parenthood. She says groups like hers have been gunning for this debate for a long time.

Ms. CECILE RICHARDS (President, Planned Parenthood): 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.

ROVNER: But Johnson and his allies at National Right To Life are ready, too.

Mr. JOHNSON: We think that any legislation that goes through Congress has to explicitly exclude abortion.

ROVNER: Finding a middle ground here is going to test President Obama's formidable political skills.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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