WASHINGTON -- The rancorous House debate and vote to preserve the ban on federal funding of abortions has jarred abortion-rights advocates who hoped that election of a president who proposed lifting the ban would lead to its speedy demise this year. Instead, they have been alerted that passage of the Freedom of Choice Act that would codify a woman's right to abortion under the Roe v. Wade decision is not a sure thing.
While insisting that they never had the votes to kill the ban on federal funding, embodied in the 16-year-old amendment sponsored by Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, abortion-rights leaders concede that the highly visible defeat will not help their efforts to cement Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. Privately they blame the House Democratic leadership for not bringing the Freedom of Choice Act up first, for which they insist they have a much better shot at passing.
Polls consistently indicate that Americans by a comfortable margin favor a woman's right to choose, but using taxpayers' money for abortions is another matter. Kate Michelman, head of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), acknowledges that abortion foes in Congress have done an effective job in casting the issue in terms of a rip-off of taxpayers rather than as a matter of equity for poor women, who lack health insurance or other financial resources to pay for abortions.
The particularly ugly tenor of the House debate raised the temperature of the abortion issue, which seemed to some to be fading with the Supreme Court's unwillingness to overturn it even with the addition of new conservative votes and with the election of pro-choice Bill Clinton to the White House.
Hyde at one point suggested that federal funding would amount to telling poor women that "we'll give you a free abortion because there are too many of you people and we want to . . . refine the breed." The remark enraged black women in the House, though Hyde seemed to be saying that this was not his attitude, but that of those who advocated federal funding. He later apologized for advising one of them, Democratic Rep. Cardiss Collins of Illinois, to talk to ministers in her district "who will tell her just what goes on in her community."
If there is any plus in the House vote upholding the Hyde amendment, Michelman says, it is that it will fire up abortion-rights advocates anew to do all they can to make sure the Freedom of Choice Act is passed.
Four years ago, when the Supreme Court in the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services case in Missouri upheld the right of states to place certain limitations of a woman's right to an abortion, the decision was hailed by abortion foes. But the political effect was to energize the pro-choice forces to more aggressive efforts in support of like-minded candidates in local, state and congressional elections in 1990 and 1992. Michelman says she hopes and expects the same heightened concern and activity to occur in behalf of the Freedom of Choice Act.
Hyde, however, says the vote on his amendment "indicates there is a disposition of a strong majority to put some restrictions on the abortion license." Many House members, he suggests, may be feeling that now that Roe v. Wade remains in place, "don't make us march up that hill again."
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of National Right to Life, argues that opposition to the proposed act is building because it goes beyond codifying Roe, and would actually nullify any state law diminishing access to abortion.
Unless the pro-choice forces have the votes to bring the Freedom of Choice Act to the floor under a rule barring amendments, Hyde says, they aren't likely to call it up, and his side is prepared to offer amendments if it comes up under a rule permitting them.
Also, Hyde says, "the White House may be taking a second look at this issue, because strong sentiment is growing against existence of an abortion culture."
Abortion-rights leaders, however, say they see no sign of Clinton backing off, and they anticipate payments for abortion to be incorporated in his health-care reforms offered later this year, when the battle is joined anew.