Choice Activists Ponder Elections' Implications

Advocates for reproductive choice worry that the new Congress will confirm judicial appointees who oppose abortion and approve legislation that would chip away at the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

Kate Michelman

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)-Devastated by the outcome of last week's midterm elections, pro-choice activists are girding for a difficult two-year battle against a more strongly anti-choice Congress and an emboldened conservative president who is expected to fill at least one Supreme Court vacancy before his term ends in 2004.

The Democratic Party's unexpected loss of Senate control marked pro-choice advocates' most profound setback, as power will soon change hands from Sen. Tom Daschle, a staunchly pro-choice Democrat from South Dakota, to Sen. Trent Lott, a fiercely anti-choice Republican from Mississippi. Anti-choice senators will also take over the gavels of key committees that have a say in the fate of abortion rights, such as the Judiciary Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Democrats also failed to win back control of the House, leaving power in the hands of a cabal of anti-choice Republican leaders. The GOP caucus is expected to reelect Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois as Speaker in its party-wide elections Thursday. The caucus is also expected to elect Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas as its leader and Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri as its whip.

In addition, pro-choice factions in both chambers suffered a net loss of several incumbents while anti-choice groups added new members to their ranks.

Echoing widespread sentiment within the progressive community, Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said that her group was “profoundly disappointed-and deeply concerned” about the results of last week's elections.

“With anti-choice leaders holding a monopoly of power in Washington, the threat to choice is greater today than it has been in decades,” Michelman said.

Lynn Grefe, national director of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, agreed that last Tuesday's results are “scary” for those who value reproductive rights.

“I'm not trying to take anything away from Republicanism, but we sure would like to see a larger voice of moderation in this Congress,” Grefe said. “The reality is those pro-choice people are going to have to stand strong. They are going to receive a lot of pressure and we have to really hope that they stand strong.”

Court Vacancies a Key Concern

Pro-choice advocates from both parties fear one thing above all else: that one of the five Supreme Court justices who support abortion rights will step down in the next two years, leaving President Bush free to appoint an anti-choice judge. With a 52-vote majority in the Senate, Republicans could have the power to pass a conservative nominee through the Senate and onto the high court-a scenario abortion rights advocates worry will lead to a repeal of reproductive freedoms won in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

Abortion rights groups also dread the 108th Congress because control of the Senate Judiciary Committee will change hands. The new chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, will in all likelihood confirm many of the anti-choice judicial appointees whose confirmations were blocked by Democrats in the 107th Congress.

In addition, Senate Republican leaders can now act on a number of anti-choice measures that passed the GOP-controlled House but were languishing in the Senate under Democratic control.

The most prominent of these is a bill that would ban several categories of common abortion practices. The bill declares illegal so-called “partial-birth abortion,” a term which does not correlate to any existing medical procedure. Although promoters of the legislation claim that it applies only in the third trimester, this is not stated anywhere in the bill, which applies to any stage of a woman's pregnancy and also to women whose health is endangered by the pregnancy. Similar state legislation was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000.

“I will call it up, we will pass it, and the president will sign it,” Lott said in an interview Thursday with American Family Radio. “I'm making that commitment-you can write it down.”

Pro-choice Factions in Both Chambers Suffer Net Losses of Members

The Senate's pro-choice faction suffered a net loss of two incumbents last week despite predictions that the Democratic Party would hold onto control of the Senate. That number could grow to three if Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat with a mixed voting record on abortion legislation, loses a Dec. 7 runoff against anti-choice Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell.

Anti-choice challengers ousted pro-choice incumbents in Georgia and Missouri while anti-choice Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota won the right to succeed the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a champion of reproductive rights. Those losses were offset by a partial victory in Arkansas, where David Pryor, a Democrat with a mixed record on abortion, defeated anti-choice Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson.

Meanwhile, pro-choice candidates were defeated in four of five open-seat races, leaving the Senate controlled by 33 solid pro-choice senators, 17 or 18 senators with a mixed record (depending on the outcome of the Louisiana Senate race), and 48 solidly anti-choice senators, according to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. That's down from the 107th Congress, which was controlled by 35 solidly pro-choice senators, 18 senators with a mixed record, and 47 solidly anti-choice senators.

The pro-choice bloc in the House of Representatives also lost members last Tuesday, including one of its staunchest allies, eight-term Maryland Republican Rep. Connie Morella. Meanwhile, anti-choice Democrat Mike Michaud defeated pro-choice Republican Kevin Raye in Maine's 2nd district, another significant setback for the dwindling band of pro-choice Republicans in Congress.

With the results of three House contests still outstanding, 141 solidly pro-choice incumbents remain in office-about the same amount as in the 107th Congress, according to the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Incumbents with mixed records on abortion fell from 74 members to 69 last Tuesday while the solidly anti-choice group grew from 217 members to 222.

Pro-choice Advocates Vow to Continue the Fight for Abortion Rights

While Michelman cautioned Republicans against interpreting relatively small GOP gains in the House and Senate as a mandate to roll back or chip away at a woman's right to choose, others concerned about reproductive choice were cheered by Rep. Nancy Pelosi's likely ascendancy this Thursday to House minority leader. Pelosi has been a staunch defender of abortion rights and other issues of concern to women.

“We know that people are mobilizing in all kinds of ways to make sure that people understand that the issue of choice needs to be carefully tended,” said Susan Medalie, executive director of the Women's Campaign Fund, a political action committee dedicated to electing pro-choice women to office.

Nonetheless, leaders of the anti-choice movement brushed aside their counterparts' claims, hailing Tuesday's midterm elections as a decisive victory for Christian conservatism and calling on the Republican Party to move aggressively to the right.

“The pro-life stand was a decisive factor in the Republican takeover of the Senate,” said Sandy Rios, president of the anti-choice group Concerned Women of America. “A pro-life, pro-family Christian conservative is our president, enjoying a 67 percent approval rating and riding the tide of victory for other like-minded candidates all over the country. Big-Tent Republicans would do well to go back to the tee-pee.”

But other abortion opponents said they would “postpone any celebration” of Tuesday's election results.

“The sad fact is that the political establishment has become increasingly comfortable” with abortion, said American Life League president Judie Brown.

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington.

For more information:

National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League:

Republican Pro-Choice Coalition:

Concerned Women for America: