WASHINGTON—Behind the scenes, Congress has begun considering how to override President Bill Clinton's veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (HR 1122).
This will be the second round of a political showdown that began in 1996 when Sen. Rick Santorum (RPa.) challenged the late-term procedure known in the medical industry as intact dilation and extraction (D&X) on the floor of the Senate. Since the method involves killing a child that has been delivered in a breech fashion up to its neck, many—including U.S. bishops, lawmakers, and physicians— have termed it infanticide.
At every step in the drawn-out struggle, support for the ban has grown. When the president vetoed the measure for the second time Oct. 10, it had won by a veto-proof margin (296-132) in the House of Representatives, and passed the Senate only three votes shy of the necessary two-thirds majority to override a veto (64-36).
While many Democratic senators have been persuaded to support the ban, including Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and senior statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, at least eight self-identified Catholic members of the Senate, some from the most heavily Catholic areas of the country, have opposed the ban and voted to uphold the president's veto. Sens. Christopher Dodd (DConn.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), Barbara MikuIski (D-Md.), and Mary Collins (R-Maine) all support keeping legal the practice of partial-birth abortion. Even Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who represents the only state in which Catholics are a majority of the population, voted to keep it legal.
The allegiance of so many Catholic legislators to the “pro-choice” camp is perhaps the most distressing aspect of this political struggle for pro-life organizers. Why the contradiction? Why do politicians who publicly list themselves as Catholics, vote against the Catholic position on abortion issues?
Various senators make different arguments to justify their support for partial-birth abortion, but virtually all cite two broad arguments: The need to defer to the rulings of the Supreme Court, and the (former New York Gov.) Mario Cuomo argument, that while “personally opposed” to abortion, the decision to have an abortion should be reserved to the individual involved. Unfortunately, this opinion resonates with many people—including Catholics.
That is not to say that all Americans favor the present “abortion-on-demand” philosophy in the United States. A recent public-opinion analysis of the abortion issue sheds light on this topic. Carll Ladd and Karlyn Bowman, polling experts at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank, argue that, based on polls published in the last 25 years, the American population is deeply divided on this issue. “People recognize that human life is precious, and they think it should be protected. At the same time, they feel strongly that individual choice should be respected. Most Americans are at once pro-choice and pro-life.”
Ladd and Bowman point out that this “pluralistic compromise,” with its deference to the choices of others, is the pattern of public opinion across a range of issues (e.g. smoking, school choice, health-care options, and access to pornography. However, by large majorities, most Americans support restrictions on access to abortion after the first trimester. Regarding the partial-birth procedure, more than 70% of the population favors an outright ban.
That is why the pro-life movement has dramatically changed its emphasis in recent months. The brutal facts about partial-birth abortion shift public attention away from who is making the choice to what is being chosen—and most Americans simply don't have the stomach to support it. Whatever their conviction about abortion in general, infanticide is clearly outside the mainstream.
That has been the impetus behind the most significant movement in voting behavior on abortion issues since 1973. Eighteen states have passed versions of the Santorum bill during the last two years (not including Ohio, where the language of the ban was flawed) and many congressional Democrats (13 senators and 79 representatives) have abandoned their party's traditional pro-abortion posture.
In the Senate, Daschle, a Catholic, leads the list of pro-abortion Democrats who voted against his party and the president. His last-minute switch to support the Santorum bill came only after intense pressure from South Dakota voters and from Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls. (Daschle is reported to have exclaimed, “That's enough. Let's get this thing out of here and send it to the Supreme Court” in reaction to Bishop Carlson's leadership on the issue.) Other Catholic senators who were either unwilling to buck the demands of public opinion and the Church include John Breaux (D-La.), Mary Landrieux (DLa.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
By contrast, Sen. Robert Byrd (DW.Va.) changed his position to support the ban after learning the full details of the procedure. Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) switched his vote in favor of the ban after his home state passed its own measure with broad popular support. Bishop said he felt bound to uphold the moral convictions of those who elected him.
These prominent defections have increased the pressure on the holdout Catholic Democrats. Most vulnerable are those facing election this year, such as Illinois Moseley-Braun, and Washington's Patty Murray. Moseley-Braun faces a strong pro-life Republican candidate in this fall's election, and a state Democratic Party that appears to be divided on abortion issues, having nominated a pro-life candidate for governor. What's more, Illinois is one of the states that has outlawed the partial-birth procedure. In a close election, the issue could determine the outcome.
There are similar situations in a number of upcoming political races. In fact, the override vote has become a central issue in the 105th Congress. Pro-life forces are working fervently to persuade three senators to switch their override votes. Though the debate has been quiet (at least in the national press) for months, the override issue is shaping up to be a defining moment in American political history.
The motion to override will begin in the House Judiciary Committee, where much interest and speculation centers on the timing of the vote.
Though assured of passage in the House (the margin is 10 votes greater than the required two-thirds majority), if the measure were to arise now, most observers believe it would ultimately fail. Pro-life leaders argue that it would be a mistake to rush the vote.
“The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), the Christian Coalition, and other pro-life organizations need as much time as possible to round up the crucial three votes [in the Senate],” said NRLC Legislative Director Doug Johnson. The best estimate is for a vote in late summer.
As the behind-the-scenes debate in Washington intensifies, the approvals of statewide bans are cause for hope. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Christine Whitman, re-elected by a slim margin in November, suffered a legislative override of her veto of a state ban in December. In February, the Florida legislature demonstrated its determination by overriding Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles's veto. Virginia's newly elected state Assembly, previously dominated by pro-abortion Democrats, voted in favor of a ban in March. And in Maine, despite Greek Orthodox senator (Republican Olympia Snowe) and a Catholic senator (Collins) siding with the president, the Christian Coalition's polling shows that more than 80% of state voters favor a ban on partial-birth abortions.
With the tide running strongly against them, abortion advocates have begun the classic “end run” to the courts. Most state bans have been delayed by federal court order, and the issue seems destined to wind up in the Supreme Court. Whatever the outcome, the partial-birth issue has given the pro-life cause a new vigor and a dramatic new platform from which to educate the public. As one veteran observer commented, “it's yet another instance of God bringing good out of evil.”
George Forsyth, a political scientist and former foreign service officer, is executive director of the Catholic Campaign for America.