New Congress Slightly More Pro-Choice

As the 107th Congress is sworn in and confirmation battles begin, pro-choice advocates are working overtime to communicate one simple fact to the powers that be: America is pro-choice and women's rights advocates are watching every vote cast in Congress.

Rosemary Dempsey

(WOMENSENEWS)-President-elect George W. Bush, presiding over a deeply divided Congress and with a strong anti-choice record, has thrown down the first gauntlet on reproductive choice: John Ashcroft, his anti-choice nominee for U.S. Attorney General.

The effectiveness of the response from reproductive rights advocates may well set the stage for battles to come over expected anti-choice legislation, regulations and judicial nominees as well as the electoral battle in two years for control of the next Congress.

Ashcroft has described abortion as “an atrocity against the future” and has a 20-year anti-choice track record, including support for laws to criminalize abortion and to define life as beginning at fertilization, which would outlaw most birth control. The Attorney General plays a major role in advising the President on all judicial appointments, in choosing cases to appeal to the Supreme Court, crafting the administration's position on cases throughout the judicial and regulatory systems, in drafting new legislation and rules, as well as enforcing federal legislation protecting abortion clinics from violence.

A coalition of pro-choice advocates, civil rights organizations, pro-gun control and campaign finance reform proponents are lobbying Congress, with special emphasis on educating and persuading moderate, pro-choice Republicans about the importance of judicial appointments and the agenda-setting function of the office.

“This coalition is the mainstream of America,” says Rosemary Dempsey, Washington director of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, referring to the hundreds of organizations working to block the nomination of Ashcroft as the nation's top lawyer.

“Bush has done us a favor by making so many right-wing appointments this early,” she adds, noting that the advocates' coalition includes “everybody from juvenile justice advocates to people with disabilities,” as well as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

On the pro-choice front, advocates are focusing on the need to emphasize that in the past election, women in particular have spoken and they favor reproductive choice.

Numerous polls, including a survey from Republican market research firm American Viewpoint, showed a plurality of women, across age brackets, including Catholics and those with children at home, believe that abortion should remain legal.

“These numbers have been stable for 25 years,” adds Candace Straight, political director of the WISH List, a political action committee that works to elect pro-choice Republican women. “They just don't seem to sway presidential elections.”

“Americans across the board favor reproductive choice and support Roe v. Wade,” agrees Dempsey. The challenge, she says, is to communicate that fact, and to work with old and new allies in the House and Senate to block the Ashcroft appointment and the approval of anti-choice judicial nominees, as well as possible anti-choice legislation.

First, the Numbers

The 107th Congress has emerged slightly more pro-choice in both houses than the previous Congress. On both sides, moderate, pro-choice Republican women are seen as key figures.

In the Senate. This Senate has 35 pro-choice senators, including the addition of four new women: Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Jean Carnahan of Missouri and Maria Cantwell of Washington, said Betsy Cavendish, legislative director of NARAL, a leading defender of reproductive rights in Washington. Advocates are hoping these women senators will be key allies in helping to stem anti-choice legislation.

“With the threat of a Clinton veto gone, the Senate has to be the firewall against bad legislation,” said Cavendish.

The count for the rest of the Senate: 47 solidly anti-choice senators who identify themselves as “pro-life,” three less than in the 106th Congress, and 18 identified as having a “mixed” voting record by NARAL and the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.

A member is counted as having a “mixed” voting record if she or he supports Roe v. Wade, but has voted or acted to limit women's reproductive choices.

For example, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., received an 85 percent rating from Planned Parenthood, but he earned a “mixed” rating because he voted for the so-called “partial-birth” abortion bill, said Monica Hobbs, director of government relations for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. Partial birth abortion laws are generally so vague that they virtually outlaw procedures as early as five weeks into the pregnancy and make no provision to protect the mother's health.

Other votes earning a member of Congress a “mixed” rating include support for laws requiring teens to obtain parental consent for abortions, for rules limiting the right of health care providers here and abroad to speak about abortion, for bans on abortions in military hospitals, even in countries where civilian facilities might be unavailable, or opposition to federal funding for reproductive health services.

In the House. Here, the pro-choice count has slightly increased. Out of a total of 435 representatives, 140 members are considered pro-choice, up from 136. The gains came at the expense of those with “mixed” records, which declined from 82 to 78. Anti-choice maintained its 217-vote solid majority.

These changes indicate the success of pro-choice election campaigns, advocates say. For proof, they cite the defeat of Southern California Republican Rep. Steve Kuykendall. He voted for so-called “partial-birth” abortion legislation and other restrictions on abortion rights. However, because he was not solidly anti-choice, he received the support of Republicans for Choice and the WISH List. He was beaten by solidly pro-choice Democrat Jane Harman after intensive organizing by women's groups.

“It's so much better for women to have someone strongly pro-choice,” says NARAL's political director, Gloria Totten.

Between elections, however, it is the “mixed” legislators who receive much of the attention from advocates who hope to influence their votes-especially moderate Republicans.

Stage Center: Moderate Republican Women

“The moderate Republican women-such as Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Representative Constance Morella of Maryland-are going to be instrumental in helping us through,” said NARAL's Cavendish. Advocates will be urging them to make sure their majority leaders understand the implications for women of any new legislation.

Expected new anti-choice legislation includes the so-called “Child Custody Protection Act,” making it a felony to help a minor cross state lines to avoid her state's abortion restrictions, similar to a law Bush signed when he was Texas governor. Others expected would restrict medical abortion using the recently approved RU-486 and a new federal effort to limit so-called “partial-birth” abortions.

Women's advocates are now meeting with “mixed” legislators, providing facts about the so-called partial-birth laws and late-term abortions and emphasizing that no one has lost an election for opposing this legislation, according to Totten, NARAL's political director.

“The Republicans thought they had a hot-button issue with this one in 1996 and it fell completely flat. In 2000, especially in the Senate, when the issue actually came up, our candidate won.”

Totten points to new Senator Jon Corzine, D-N.J. His opponent ran TV ads blasting his pro-choice position while Corzine ran pro-choice television ads. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell in Washington state also emphasized her support for reproductive choice, which helped her win a narrow victory.

Sen. Cantwell will join the Senate Judiciary Committee and face her first opportunity to make her mark during the Ashcroft confirmation hearings.

As with expected anti-choice legislation, current lobbying efforts are targeting moderate Republicans, especially women. “It would be very influential if moderate Republican women like Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe came out against Ashcroft,” says NARAL's Cavendish. “We're talking to all of them.”

All Eyes Look to the Supreme Court

During last fall's campaigns, women's organizations pioneered a common slogan, “It's the Supreme Court, Stupid!” when urging their members to vote with the potential composition of the High Court in mind. The court now has a five-four majority supporting abortion rights. Many of the advocates see the Ashcroft battle as a prototype for what could happen if President Bush should nominate a foe of Roe v. Wade to fill an expected Supreme Court vacancy.

Eleanor Smeal, president and founder of the Feminist Majority, is blunt about what she believes must be done to protect women's reproductive choices in the next four years.

“We must build a will to fight the stacking of the courts with the right wing,” she says. “I have watched the Senate block every single one of Clinton's judicial appointees. We have to build similar will among the Democrats. And we must make sure the fifth vote against Roe doesn't get on there. Otherwise, girls will die. We'll lose a generation of women.”

Chris Lombardi is a free-lance writer based in New York, specializing in politics and international relations.

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Aug 16, 2000, “The New Slogan: It's the Supreme Court, Stupid!”
Jul 31, 2000, “George W. Bush's Record for Women: Mixed-to-Poor”
Jul 29, 2000, “Bush's Positions According to His Website”