WASHINGTON - Pro-lifers were duly gratified last fall when President Bush promised to sign the partial-birth-abortion ban bill vetoed twice by President Clinton during their eight years in political Siberia.
Now that the anti-abortion party is back in favor, however, a split has appeared within the pro-life movement as to whether the ban should even be on the Bush administration's agenda, let alone at the top of it. Some pro-life leaders, including the Rev. Frank Pavone, the head of the Staten Island-based Priests for Life, still want to see the legislation revisited and approved.
For one thing, said Father Pavone in a recent interview, "We always seem to come out ahead anyway when this is before the public."
But other pro-life strategists believe that Bush should have never made further action on the ban bill an issue in the first place. The reason: At least for the time being, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered the matter moot last summer by striking down a virtually identical Nebraska state law outlawing the late-term abortion procedure.
"I am not saying the question has been permanently settled, but it would be a little awkward for members of Congress to support something that has just been invalidated by the Court," said Theresa Wagner of Family Research Council, a conservative group here.
She predicted that the re-introduction of legislation would only give its opponents an opportunity to trumpet the Nebraska decision as a complete vindication of their position, and to claim the high ground in the debate.
The scuttling of the Nebraska statute has put backers of the measure "in a kind of a pinch," Ms. Wagner said. "Should they simply defy what the court has ruled? I don't think too many of them would be willing to do that."
Moreover, she said, even if it cleared Congress again and got Bush's signature, the measure would immediately become a hostage of the federal courts.
Wagner stressed that she was not accusing Bush of "bad faith" in focusing on partial-birth abortion in the campaign. Clearly, his intent was honorable - to establish his pro-life credentials and to disassociate himself from Clinton's "pro-abortion extremism," she said.
"It just wasn't thought through," Ms. Wagner said of Bush's pledge on the ban bill.
Instead of inviting another defeat on the measure, this time in the courts, she said, the pro-life movement should mobilize behind a more court-worthy legislative priority, the Born Alive Protection Act, a measure requiring abortion doctors to save children who live through an abortion procedure.
Like the partial-birth-abortion bill, Ms. Wagner said, the "survivor" bill would allow pro-lifers to draw attention to "the reality of abortion" and keep abortion rights supporters on the defensive. The measure has the "same benefits" of the partial birth-abortion bill without any of its legal baggage, she said.
Father Pavone agrees that the survivor bill should be brought to the fore. "It is critical . . . to draw that clear line and say - No child born alive can be destroyed," he said.
But he argued that the Nebraska decision did not necessarily deal a fatal blow to the partial-birth-abortion ban. He said that he favored efforts to "adjust the language" of the measure and "to push it through in any case to see what unfolds."
Sooner or later, he added, the Nebraska decision could "easily be reversed" as the make-up of the Supreme Court changed.
But Ms. Wagner said she was less optimistic about such a thaw in the foreseeable future of what she considered the entrenched bias of the entire federal judiciary against abortion restrictions.
"These partial-birth-abortion bans are perfectly constitutional," she contended. "But federal courts have bent over backwards to accommodate the requests of the pro-abortion lobby to strike down pro-life legislation."
As other alternatives to the ban, she recommended a stepped-up effort to stop the use of aborted fetus embryos for medical research, and a campaign to limit access to the RU-486 abortion pill.
Postscript: Rank-and-file pro-life activists are also reluctant to give up or sidetrack the quest for a congressional prohibition on partial-birth abortions.
"It was never a political tactic," said Eugene Cosgriff of Rossville, a spokesman for the borough's Right to Life Committee. "Partial-birth abortion is a crime against humanity."