Washington - A shift in rhetoric by key Democrats over the past few months has left some wondering whether the party is willing to embrace a more life-affirming stance on abortion.
From Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean declaring that he wants "to make a home for pro-life Democrats" to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y, saying abortions should be done "only in very rare circumstances," the opportunity seemed ripe for some action to back up the words.
Seizing the opportunity, the pro-life Democrats for Life of America presented a plan, known as the 95-10 Initiative, that they predict will reduce abortions by 95% over the next 10 years.
"We think this is a good way to work within our party to help women make better choices than abortion and let them know there is support out there - that abortion isn't the only option," said Kristen Day, Democrats for Life's Executive Director.
Several pro-life Democrats, including Congressmen Tim Ryan of Ohio and Bart Stupak of Michigan, and former Congressman Tim Roemer of Indiana, appeared at Democratic National Committee headquarters April 21 to unveil the proposal, which should be introduced as legislation on the House floor by early June, Day said.
Among other things, the initiative would:
1. Collect confidential data on women who volunteer to take part in a study by the National Institutes of Health on why they choose abortions, with the findings announced within five years to Congress.
2. Promote a toll-free number that would direct a woman to organizations that provide support services for pregnant women and direct women to adoption centers.
3. Provide grants to school districts that are in need of funds to administer effective, age-appropriate pregnancy prevention education, including abstinence.
4. Ban insurance companies from listing pregnancy as a "pre-existing condition."
5. Require pregnancy centers and women's health centers that provide pregnancy counseling and that receive federal funding to provide adoption referral information.
6. Provide grants to nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations for the purchase of ultrasound equipment to provide free examinations to pregnant women.
7. Increase funding for domestic violence programs.
8. Prohibit transporting a minor across a state line to obtain an abortion.
9. Provide grants to states to help in the promotion and implementation of "safe haven laws," where a mother in distress can drop off a newborn anonymously at designated locations. Forty-six states have some type of safe haven legislation.
10. Mandate State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for pregnant women and their unborn children.
11. Mandate insurance coverage of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Day, who is a recent convert to the Catholic faith, said pro-life Democrats hope that if most of the initiative becomes law, the abortion rate might decline by 95% in a decade.
Stupak said he doesn't think cost will be an issue when the future bill comes up for consideration.
"A lot of these programs exist," he said. "What we're having difficulties doing is making [people] aware [of them] and making sure they're accessible."
Response from Catholic pro-life groups was mainly positive, except concerning the issue of contraception.
Although Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, said he supports "in principle" pro-life Democrats' efforts to reduce the abortion rate, he emphasized that the initiative needs more refinement and modification. His organization is in contact with both parties, and will be offering input as the various recommendations are hammered out in more detail, he said, including the issue of contraception.
"No measure designed to reduce abortion should facilitate contraception, for the simple reason that such an approach doesn't work," he said. "Every society that opens the doors wider to contraception sees an increase, not a decrease, in abortions - not to mention the fact that so much 'contraception' is, in fact, early abortion under a different name."
He added that he doesn't question the sincerity of pro-life legislators who want to reduce abortions, but he challenged both parties to resist the temptation to "dodge" the abortion issue.
"Abortion must not only be limited," Father Pavone said, "it must be ended."
Mark Adams, communications manager for the Culture of Life Foundation, agreed with Father Pavone's assessment that the initiative was, for the most part, positive - with the exception of the contraception issue.
"My fear is legislation like this is going to be put forth as middle ground," Adams said. "I don't see this is middle ground. To get to middle ground, we have to overturn Roe v. Wade."
Another of Adams' concerns was regarding the proposal to ask the National Institutes of Health to conduct a study on why women choose abortions.
"We don't trust the National Institutes of Health," he said. "I know the staffing, in general, at NIH [consists of] people who are not sympathetic to our point of view."
Day said she expects Congress to hold the agency accountable to the accuracy of the proposed study. Regarding contraception, she said there is a conscience clause in the proposal that would give insurance programs the opportunity to opt out for moral reasons.
"We felt like we came up with the best possible language we could," Day said. "As we try to move this along, we may compromise and find better language to put in that really addresses people's concerns" on contraception.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for an organization that supports abortions and contraception recently said the proposal is mainly focused on services after a woman is pregnant, and was not enthusiastic about it.
"The only way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies," Susanne Martinez, vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told the National Journal in late April. "I think [the initiative] is a facade, and I think people will see through it pretty quickly."
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said if the majority of Democrats in the House don't get behind the legislation it would be an indication of their "extreme ideological position, which is abortion on demand."
That would be "disappointing," he said in an interview, but he praised the Democrats who stepped forward to present the plan.
"It's a terrific plus to have folks from the other side of the aisle put forth an agenda that, candidly, is not part of the mainstream of the Democratic Party," Santorum said, "but one that creates opportunities for bipartisan working together."
Carlos Briceno is based in Seminole, Florida