For example, new House leader John Boehner has said he wants to be “the most pro-life speaker ever” and New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, co-chair of the Congressional Pro-life Caucus, called this “the arguably most pro-life House ever,” a judgment with which many abortion opponents concur.
And abortion foes can already point to a phalanx of bills introduced this past week by Smith and others, with more expected. The bills include one by Smith to permanently bar taxpayer dollars from funding abortion in any federal appropriation, a measure to enact stronger conscience clause provisions for health care workers, and a proposal to deny federal funding to Planned Parenthood.
There are also signs that the federal judiciary is more receptive than ever to supporting laws that restrict abortion, and various states are enacting measures — mandating ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, for example — that hold out hope for decreasing the abortion rate, which is inching up after a three-decade decline.
Yet as enthusiastic as pro-lifers are — and hope springs eternal at the start of every new Congress — they also face sobering political realities: While the House has a comfortable Republican majority, Democrats still hold the Senate, and President Obama — with his veto power — is in the White House and enjoying a bump in his approval ratings.
So what can pro-lifers really expect in the next two years, and how nervous should pro-choice activists be? The short answer is that the coming battles on Capitol Hill will largely be about shaping perceptions ahead of the 2012 vote — in a word, politics.
“We’re going to go forward hopefully in trying to pass everything — except we live in the real world,” said Tom McCluskey of FRC Action, the legislative arm for the Family Research Council. “A lot of it” — the next two years — “is to help us to show the American people where people in the Senate are and where the president is on these issues.”
McCluskey also argued that bringing a range of anti-abortion bills to the House floor in the coming months would do two things: It would demonstrate to members that these arguments are not going away and that tedious annual disputes over taxpayer funding, for example, could be eliminated by codifying the ban in the Smith bill. And, two, the debates would get members used to voting for these types of bills in anticipation of further Republican gains in 2012.
“Then as we go forward and look at hopefully a more conservative Senate and a more conservative person in the White House, the House knows their role because hopefully they’ve been doing it for a couple of years,” he said.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, agreed that a significant part of the coming congressional session will be about establishing distinctions in voters’ minds ahead of November 2012.
“The next two years may very well highlight the great divergence between some of President Obama’s rhetoric on abortion-related issues and his actual policy history,” Johnson said. Obama has frequently said he wants to make abortion rare and to find common ground on the issue. “I think at the least the hollowness of much of his rhetoric is going to be clear to a lot more people by the end of this Congress.”
But, Johnson added, “I wouldn’t accept the premise that we won’t necessarily be able to make any affirmative progress” legislatively.
He noted that pro-lifers were able to pass a number of agenda items when Bill Clinton was president, such as a ban on abortions at U.S. military facilities and a ban on human embryo research, both of which Clinton signed off on despite his opposition because they were part of other legislation that he supported.
A bill to defund Planned Parenthood, introduced by Indiana Republican Mike Pence, who is increasingly mentioned as a GOP presidential hopeful for 2012, is the kind of thing that could be inserted into a larger appropriations bill, for instance. If it reached Obama’s desk that would then create a political dilemma for the president, who relies heavily on pro-choice voters for support.
Moreover, promoting anti-abortion policies as budget-cutting measures is smart politics at a time when the public is looking to reduce deficits and cut spending. That’s how New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another rising Republican star, presented it when he slashed $7.5 million in state funding for Planned Parenthood in the Garden State.
“His popularity was hurt more by a snowstorm than by the Planned Parenthood cut,” said McCluskey.
(While Christie has personally donated to Planned Parenthood and supports Roe v. Wade, he has become a hero to many in the conservative movement.)
Still, the push to cut spending could also expose some rifts within the pro-life camp.
The Catholic bishops, for example, are leading players in the fight against abortion but they do not want health care reform repealed, as many conservative pro-life lobbies do. Rather, they want to plug what they say are funding streams in the reform law for abortion providers (an argument disputed by health care experts) and would push to make government-backed health coverage “universal” and available to all. The bishops also support a range of social safety net policies.
“[W]e will encourage one and all to seek common ground, reducing the number of abortions by providing compassionate and morally sound care for pregnant women and their unborn children,” New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in a January 14 letter to each member of Congress outlining the hierarchy’s priorities.
Even a reliably conservative voice like Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn asked whether New York City’s eye-opening 41 percent abortion rate — which Archbishop Dolan and other religious leaders said they want to reduce with pragmatic efforts rather than focusing solely on legal bans — was in part because “many pregnant women are not getting the social help and encouragement they need to have their babies?”
But that’s not the approach leading pro-life groups have traditionally taken.
“You want [the federal government] to encourage a strong family unit, except it’s not the government’s role to provide financial support for such a thing,” as McCluskey put it. “The best role government can play is to get out of the way.”
Another note of caution was sounded by Russell Shaw, a conservative Catholic writer and former spokesman for the U.S. bishops, who delivered a sobering perspective as he reflected on the battles over abortion rights that have consumed so much political energy since Roe, and with little real movement.
“The polling data show that a majority of Americans don’t support the virtually unlimited access to abortion that now exists. Yet people who are opposed to abortion, at least tepidly, regularly vote for pro-choice candidates,” Shaw wrote in a January 18 column for Patheos, a popular religion portal. “The result is this prolife/pro-choice seesaw. Up and down — it’s been that way for thirty-eight years.”
To Shaw, the relative stalemate “merely underlines the magnitude of the task of education and persuasion facing the pro-life community,” a task that is not likely to be accomplished in this Congress or even if the 2012 election goes the way conservatives would like.
But pro-life activists say they are encouraged, and have reason to be beyond their prospects in the House. Surveys show opposition to legal abortion remains strong and may even be growing, and they can point to any number of advances at the state level — advances that worry the pro-choice community as much as they hearten pro-lifers.
NARAL Pro-Choice America estimated that the number of anti-abortion governors rose from 21 to 29 after the November election, and the number of states with governments where the governor and the majority legislature are both considered anti-abortion increased from 10 to 15.
“Our state affiliates are definitely expecting to be in for the fight of their lives,” Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL, told Politico last month.
Pro-life activists hope to see more states pass laws like the one adopted by Oklahoma last year requiring patients to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the fetus before getting an abortion. And Nebraska last year passed a ban on abortions after 20 weeks based on the concept that the fetus can feel pain at that stage.
All of that ferment could well trickle up to the congressional level, or at least pro-life activists hope so.
“We’re going to roll up our sleeves and do our best to advance these measures,” said NRLC’s Johnson. “But at the very least there will be more clarity on where our leaders stand on some of these issues at the end of this Congress.”