WASHINGTON -- Efforts to reverse nearly two decades of federal restrictions on abortion are advancing at a sluggish pace, despite the election of a president and a slew of new members of Congress committed to abortion rights.
Although President Clinton, acting both on his own and with the cooperation of Congress, has been able to chip away at a few abortion obstacles imposed during 12 years of Republican control of the White House, the most far-reaching anti-abortion legislation remains intact.
Tuesday's 59-to-40 vote in the Senate to maintain the ban on federally financed abortions for poor women -- eased only slightly to exempt victims of rape and incest -- was a sharp repudiation of Mr. Clinton's attempt to do away with the ban entirely. The House also refused to lift the ban during an acrimonious debate in July.
"It's not a great new era," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat and long-time veteran of the abortion rights campaign.
Ms. Schroeder said she worries there could even be an erosion of women's access not only to abortions but also to other pregnancy-related services as the emotional clash over abortion intensifies during the debate over Mr. Clinton's health care reform legislation. "Women just haven't made it clear that there's going to be hell to pay," she added.
During his first week in office, Mr. Clinton issued executive orders that overturned the bans on abortion counseling at federally supported family planning centers, fetal tissue research and abortions at military hospitals. He also restored funding to population control programs in foreign countries that include abortion as an option.
With Mr. Clinton's support, Congress removed a ban on abortions offered to federal employees through their health insurance policies and a prohibition against the District of Columbia from spending federal money for abortion services.
Even so, it has been a disappointingly slow start for those who had hopes back in January that Congress might be ready to enact the so-called Freedom of Choice Act, which would remove nearly all restrictions on abortion imposed by the various states.
Although a majority of legislators claim that they support the bill's concept, so many want to protect their own state's restrictions that the legislation wouldn't accomplish anything, its prime sponsors say.
"Nine months into a presidency, you are not going to undo 16 years worth of anti-choice legislation. It's just going to take a lot more time to undo the damage," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights League.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, said his forces are "doing better than a lot of people expected" since last year's election because Congress is being affected by the continuing national ambivalence over the abortion issue.
According to a poll taken in April for CBS and the New York Times, only 43 percent of those surveyed agreed with Mr. Clinton's view that abortion should be generally available to those who want it, and another 37 percent thought some limits should be imposed.
Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they did not believe abortion should be included in the basic benefits plan to be offered to every American through Mr. Clinton's health care reform plan. The administration plans to include abortion in the health benefits package as a pregnancy-related service, though first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton indicated this week that not every health insurance plan will be required to offer abortion coverage.
William W. Hamilton Jr., chief lobbyist for the Planned Parenthood Federation, predicted that the political dynamics on the abortion issue will change once it becomes clear the abortion rights of the middle class will be affected by the outcome of the health care debate. Many insurance plans cover abortion now.
Because of U.S. Supreme Court rulings protecting the right to abortion, congressional limits so far have been tied to federal financing, which mostly affects poor women on Medicaid with little political clout.
Despite Mrs. Clinton's assurances that the president wants only to maintain the "status quo" on abortion, advocates on both sides of the issue believe that's not possible under his plan.
Expanding abortion rights
If Congress enacts Mr. Clinton's proposal as outlined so far, it would significantly expand abortion rights for poor women and working women without health insurance by guaranteeing them abortion coverage through the basic benefits package.
But if Congress decides to exclude abortion from the basic benefits package, it would be difficult to do so without limiting the rights enjoyed now by millions of privately insured women.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who has become the chief spokesman for the anti-abortion forces in Congress, says he believes that issue can be addressed by requiring women who want abortion benefits to pay extra for that coverage. Abortion rights advocates say that would defeat the purchase of universal coverage, maintain the double standard for rich and poor women, and create a potential privacy problem for women who want the coverage.
But Mr. Hyde, buoyed by his success at getting Congress to maintain the so-called Hyde amendment banning abortions for poor women, is determined to make it a fight.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat active in Tuesday's effort to strip the Hyde amendment from a bill on Medicaid financing, said she was not discouraged by the vote.
"Change is a process, not an event," she said.
"Changes comes incrementally. We've made a lot of progress this year."