ABORTION FIGHT SHIFTS TO MID-TERM ELECTIONS
by JOSEPH ESPOSITO
Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON-The latest congressional failure to ban the partial-birth abortion
procedure has been a frustrating blow to pro-life forces. But they are also
hopeful that the issue can be used to elect more sympathetic legislators in the
critical November midterm elections.
On Sept.18 the Senate fell three votes short of overriding President
Clinton's veto of HR 1122, which passed both houses of Congress in 1997. The
House successfully overrode the veto on July 23, but the Senate could not reach
the necessary 67 votes, two-thirds of that chamber's membership.
Bills prohibiting partial-birth abortion and providing criminal and civil
penalties for practitioners were passed in the last two sessions of Congress;
enactment has been thwarted by the president. A previous veto override vote in
the Senate failed by nine votes.
Over the last several months vigorous campaigns to change Senate votes were
undertaken by the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Right to Life
Committee, the Family Research Council, and other religious and secular
organizations. Steve Forbes, a potential Republican presidential candidate in
2000, ran full-page newspaper ads the day of the vote.
Among groups appealing directly to senators was the National Conference of
Catholic Bishops. In the Sept. 16 statement signed by 54 bishops, they said, "We
pray that this long and difficult chapter in our country's abortion debate be
brought to the only appropriate conclusion: the rejection of a truly heinous
violation of human rights and dignity."
The Senate floor debate was lead by two ardent pro-life supporters, Sens.
Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Robert Smith (R-N.H.). Santorum, who also shaped the
discussion during the last override vote, presented charts and data in an effort
to debunk six myths about partial-birth abortion. The most enduring myth is that
the procedure protects women's health.
The senator reiterated the themes he raised in a recent editorial he wrote
for the Register
("The Truth About Partial-Birth Abortion," Sept. 13-19). "The attempt to
preserve partial-birth abortion as a legal procedure," he wrote, "has been
rooted in falsehood - not unlike the abortion industry itself."
Smith, a likely presidential candidate in 2000, gave a long, emotional
speech. At one point he said, "This is America, supposedly the moral leader of
the world. What does it say to our children when we kill children, their
colleagues, with a pair of scissors and a suction hose as they exit the birth
canal? What does that tell them?"
Other senators argued that a society's position on abortion and, in
particular, partial-birth abortion reflects its values. "No issue cuts to the
core of our values like the issue of abortion," said Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.),
another prospective presidential aspirant.
He added, "It challenges us to define our notion of liberty and calls into
question our most fundamental assumptions about life. Today, we do not debate
whether enactment of a measure will positively or negatively affect the welfare
of some Americans. Today, we debate life and death."
Calling it "something that no civilized society should tolerate," Sen. Mike
DeWine (R-Ohio) said the partial-birth vote "is about who we are as a people."
Retiring Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said, "What we are confronting is an affront
to humanity, an affront to justice."
But in the end, after a day and half of debate and months of pressure and
cajoling, no votes were changed from the last tally which was taken in May 1997.
Four Republicans joined with 32 Democrats to sustain the presidential veto.
Condemnation of the outcome was swift. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston,
chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said that it is
a "tragedy that even today some senators continued to repeat tired falsehoods on
the floor of the Senate in support of this horrid procedure."
Father Frank Pavone, international director of the Priests for Life, stressed
that Catholic senators who supported partial-birth abortions - there were 10 of
them - are at variance with Church teachings. In addition to citing the U.S.
Bishops' 1989 Resolution on Abortion, he said, "We are also ready
pastorally to assist such individuals to overcome their difficulty in embracing
A disappointed Santorum said, "It is truly regrettable that the Senate could
not muster the political and moral courage to override. One president and three
senators have kept us from being a civilized country that respects and welcomes
everyone into the human family."
The president of the Washington, D.C-based Culture of Life Foundation, Robert
Best, focused on Clinton's role in supporting partial-birth abortion. "It is
incomprehensible that President Clinton, who's desperately searching for
forgiveness and apparently wishes to atone for his sins maintains a position
that gives legal cover to the most gruesome practice in the history of mankind,
infanticide," Best told the Register.
"It's hard to understand how a man who has reached such a low level in his
life would not want to amend his mistakes by giving innocent children an
opportunity to live."
Keith Fournier, president of the Catholic Alliance, added, "As Catholic
citizens, in particular, we can't help but notice the connection between this
vote and the current moral crisis facing the nation. In both cases, we have lost
our respect for the dignity of the human person."
Despite the disappointment, prolife supporters remain optimistic about the
future. Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a prominent pollster, told the Register,
"Partial-birth abortion is one of the five or six issues beyond Bill Clinton's
wingspan. This will be one of the wedge issues" in the 1998 congressional
The upcoming elections, she added, will give pro-lifers an opportunity to
"replace errant members of the House and Senate with folks who will vote the
right way in the next Congress."
This theme was repeated in other interviews. Smith said, "It's a temporary
setback. We would have saved some lives. But we're going to involuntarily retire
some senators, and that's fine with me. Things are going to change in February."
Another presidential candidate, Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research
Council, said, "There is not another issue more important. This goes to the
heart of whether or not the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution
applies to our unborn children."
As such, he said, political repercussions will be felt in six weeks. "Three
senators won't be back," he said, citing tough re-election races for Democratic
incumbents in Illinois (Carol Moseley-Braun) and California (Barbara Boxer);
Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas is retiring. Five other Democrats who supported
the president on the partial-birth abortion issue are running for re-election.
In addition to the political dimension of the issue, some have emphasized the
educational value of the partial-birth abortion debate. "This has the potential
for turning people around on the whole abortion issue," said Darla St. Martin of
the National Right to Life Committee.
The director of the House of Representatives' Pro-Life Caucus, Maggie Wynne,
added, "Partial-birth has done more to jolt public opinion than anything else.
It has had the most dramatic impact in 20 years. It exceeds that of (the
landmark antiabortion film) The Silent Scream."
Although the Senate override effort failed, pro-life leaders remain
optimistic about the future. The 106th Congress, which assembles in January, is
likely to include more, perhaps even substantial, support for a partial-birth
Perhaps Alan Keyes, the political commentator and 1996 presidential
candidate, framed the issue best in an interview with the Register He
said, "Keep fighting. Keep pushing this issue. Today we lost the vote, but we
are doing battle for the soul of the country."
Joseph Esposito writes from Washington.