WASHINGTON -When Barack Obama was campaigning for president, he promised to enact legislation to prohibit the states from limiting the right to abortion. Now that Obama is in the White House and solid Democratic majorities are ensconced in Congress, opponents of abortion rights have been bracing for that and other major changes to abortion laws.
But there are indications that what those groups dread most and some liberal voters eagerly anticipate as the rewards of victory might not come to pass - at least not yet. Democrats on Capitol Hill say that while they are committed to reversing several Bush administration policies with regard to abortion rights and family planning, they might hold off on pursuing the kind of expansive agenda feared by social conservatives.
Despite gains in the House and Senate in last year's elections, there are still significant numbers of moderate Democrats, particularly in the House, who either oppose abortion altogether or are not in favor of sweeping changes, instead preferring a more incremental approach. And any large-scale effort involving something as polarizing as abortion necessitates spending political capital, something the Obama White House needs in abundance at the moment to ensure the survival of its economic policies.
"We deal in reality," said Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "You have to be pragmatic, realistic and, in the end, strategic."
Keenan said that solid majorities that could ensure passage of ambitious abortion-rights legislation don't exist. "The votes just aren't there," she said.
But the anti-abortion camp is not convinced. Topping its list of concerns is what's known as the Freedom of Choice Act, first introduced in the early 1990s. To abortion-rights supporters, the legislation would codify the constitutional right to abortion that was established by the Supreme Court in 1973 and prevent states from limiting that right.
While the scope of the measure remains the subject of some debate, anti-abortion activists insist it would do away with waiting periods, parental notification laws - and perhaps even force religious hospitals to perform abortion procedures.
"The antennas are way up in the pro-life community," said Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League. "I've never seen anything like it. It's like the community is on high alert."
That's led to a postcard drive launched by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that has been papering parishes, schools, churches and civic organizations for weeks. A similar drive helped torpedo abortion legislation in 1993, the last time Democrats had control of the White House, the Senate and the House.
There are signs, however, that the Obama administration is in no mood now for a politically draining fight over abortion.
At the same time, Democratic leaders on the Hill are taking a go-slow approach. The office of Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat and past sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act, says there are no plans to reintroduce the bill in the immediate future. And Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, said the bill "is not our top priority right now."
Instead, Democrats are concentrating on rolling back Bush administration policies relating to abortion and contraception. Obama has already acted to revise the Mexico City Policy, also known as the "global gag rule," which prevented international health organizations receiving U.S. aid from promoting or providing abortion services as a means of family planning.
The administration is also expected to scuttle a Department of Health and Human Services rule enacted shortly before President George W. Bush left office that allows health care workers to refuse to engage in any practice that violates their "religious beliefs or moral convictions." Critics say it could be used to keep patients from receiving information about abortion services or contraception.