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Issue Date:  February 3, 2006

Proposed initiative seeks to reduce abortion rate


The message delivered by the estimated 100,000-plus antiabortion protesters who gathered in Washington Jan. 23 for the 33rd annual “March for Life” was clear: Overturn Roe v. Wade.

“By changing laws we can change our culture,” President Bush, speaking by telephone hookup from Kansas, told the marchers. “This is a cause that appeals to the conscience of our citizens, and is rooted in America’s deepest principles -- and history tells us that with such a cause, we will prevail,” said Bush.

The marchers gathered the day before the full Senate took up the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. And though the replacement of swing-vote justice Sandra Day O’Connor with Bush-nominee Alito would leave the court with a 5-4 pro-Roe majority, even if the new justice was inclined to overturn the 1973 decision (a pledge he refused to make at his Senate confirmation hearings), his accession to the high court presents the pro-life forces with an opportunity.

Kristen Day, a former Congressional chief of staff who now heads Democrats for Life, was among the antiabortion marchers. She, too, would like to see Roe reversed, but her short-term goals are focused on another opportunity. Working with pro-life Democrats in both the House and Senate, Democrats for Life is spearheading an ambitious initiative that avoids discussion of Roe as it seeks a 95 percent reduction in the abortion rate over the next decade.

Legislation on the “95-10 Initiative” will likely be introduced next month in both the House, where Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan is taking the lead, and in the Senate, where Nebraska’s Ben Nelson is a likely chief sponsor. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is among those who have been briefed on the initiative, said Day.

The broad outlines of the legislation are in place. They include:

  • Expansion of the Medicaid program to provide health coverage to more low-income pregnant women.
  • Full funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which currently provides nutrition assistance and counseling to low-income pregnant women and their children.
  • Increased outreach to pregnant women through establishment of a “National Public Awareness Campaign” that provides information on alternatives to abortion and on resources in the community. A similar program in Michigan, said Day, resulted in an 11 percent drop in that state’s abortion rate.
  • Grants to school districts in areas with high teenage pregnancy rates to provide “age appropriate pregnancy prevention education” with information on sexual abstinence and “other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”
  • Federal funding to establish pregnancy counseling centers and daycare facilities on college campuses.
  • An increase in the federal adoption tax credit from $10,000 to $15,000.
  • The legislation will also likely include funds for counseling prospective parents who receive disturbing findings from genetic tests, such as the alpha-fetoprotein test which detects Down syndrome; additional funds for domestic violence centers; and an “informed consent” provision that requires health facilities receiving federal funds to offer counseling and information on the abortion procedure to women considering termination of their pregnancy.

    A provision that would have required insurance companies to provide coverage for contraceptives will likely be dropped from the bill, said Day, because “some Catholic members [of Congress] who feel strongly about contraception” wanted it removed.

    Minefields for the bill are many, not least of which is whether pro-choice members of the pro-choice party will embrace the 95-10 initiative.

    The effort got a jump-start earlier this month with the publication of Take it Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future (Simon & Schuster), a battle plan for Democratic restoration written by political operatives Paul Begala and James Carville, who helped place the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, in the White House.

    “The pro-life Democrats have concluded that the 32-year fight to overturn Roe v. Wade hasn’t stopped a single abortion,” write Begala and Carville. “Instead of changing the Constitution, they want to change circumstances.”

    The political consultants’ argument is admittedly pragmatic. “Do Democrats need to make peace with at least some restrictions on abortion? If they want to show the overwhelming majority of Americans who support those restrictions that they understand and respect their values, yes. If not, they will continue waging a battle they’ve already lost, and risk losing the war they’re out to win.”

    The 95-10 Initiative’s chance of success is buoyed by the soul-searching over abortion that has occupied the highest ranks of the Democratic Party since John Kerry’s November 2004 defeat. In the month following his defeat, Newsweek reported that Kerry told party activists that “they needed new ways to make people understand that they didn’t like abortion.” Kerry told them, “Democrats also needed to welcome more pro-life candidates into the party.” Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean voiced similar sentiments. And pro-choice stalwart Hillary Clinton, while not backing off her support for Roe, told a gathering of abortion-rights supporters at last year’s Roe commemorations, “It’s important that family planning advocates reach out to those who may not agree with us on everything to try to find common ground in those areas where, hopefully, emergency contraception, more funding for prenatal care and others can be a point of common ground.”

    Meanwhile, national Democrats recruited and have rallied around the strongly pro-life Robert Casey in his race against their No. 1 target in the Senate, conservative Republican incumbent Rick Santorum. Casey’s father, the late Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey, was a hero to pro-lifers nationwide, but especially to pro-life Democrats.

    Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

    National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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