WASHINGTON — How can law-makers limit abortions while the Supreme Court seems determined to declare any limits unconstitutional?

That's the question the pro-life movement face the year after Stenberg vs. Carhart, in which the high court ruled that even half-delivered babies are not protected under the Constitution.

To make matters worse, the loss of four pro-life Senate seats in November has put a damper on pro-life hopes.

These realities mean the newest pro-life strategy is limited to reversing executive orders from the Clinton administration and pushing bills that will enjoy the support of at least some pro-abortion Senators.

One is the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act which would protect live infants from being killed by a physician, even those that survive an attempted abortion. The bill was approved by the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution March 21 and is expected to squeak through in the Senate later this spring.

Another bill that can be expected to pass the House and Senate is the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Already introduced in the House but not yet put to a vote, this bill would make it a federal crime to injure or kill a baby in the course of beating the mother who is carrying it.

A third bill pro-life bill introduced in the House is the Child Custody Protection Act. It would make transporting minors across state lines for an abortion without the consent of their parents a federal crime.

“All of these are bills that should attract some support from senators who support legal abortion,” said National Right to Life Committee legislative director Doug Johnson.

Johnson explained that with 55 senators on record in support of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 that legalized gave America the world's most liberal abortion license, any bills “that directly seek to circumscribe abortion in ways that aren't consistent with the view of that bloc are not going to be successful.”

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, pro-life Sen. Rick Santorum, R.-Pa., indicated that he intended to give up on the partial-birth abortion ban for now.

“The Supreme Court basically shot down the statute we were trying to pass. I'm not going to introduce it,” Santorum said.

But Johnson advised caution in taking the Supreme Court's decision in Stenberg vs. Carhart as “the last word on the matter.”

“The composition of the court can change,” he said. “It was a 5-4 decision. Personally, we don't think Congress should throw up its hands because the current court may be skeptical about abortion limitations.”

In fact, pro-abortion activists are openly worried about the opportunities that exist for passing pro-life initiatives. In the same Washington Post article in which Santorum expressed near-despair over substantial pro-life legislation making it through Congress anytime soon, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League President Kate Michelman implied that Congress was poised to take action.

“The landscape is full of land mines now that are potentially quite lethal in terms of a woman's right to choose,” she said.

The Pro-Life President

Pro-lifers have put some hopes in Bush, pointing out that while the president cannot make law unilaterally, he has other means at his disposal to push a pro-life agenda.

President Bush cheered pro-lifers in January by reinstating a 1984 policy that forbids U.S. funding of abortions abroad. His nomination of strong pro-lifer John Ashcroft as Attorney General was similarly welcome.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., told the Register that the president has “enormous power” even without a pro-life majority in the Senate, and that the decisions he has already made will have far-reaching effects.

“That's a major sea change in our international diplomatic efforts,” he added. “We were the biggest purveyors of abortion in the world under Clinton and Gore. Now we will be the biggest promoters of a culture of life.”

Cathy Cleaver, spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Pro-Life Secretariat, agreed.

“There is no question that compared with the last eight years, we have new cause for hope,” said Cleaver.

Cleaver said the U.S. bishops will now urge Bush to place a moratorium on guidelines for stem-cell research issued by President Clinton in August, and to reverse a 1998 ruling by then Attorney General Janet Reno that allows doctors in Oregon to prescribe federally controlled substances to those who wish to kill themselves.

Cleaver said she approves of Congress' current pro-life strategy of pressing only for bills that have a good chance of passing through the Senate. “Right now that's the best use of the resources we have,” she said.

Nevertheless, Congress' apparent willingness to pursue only incremental pro-life legislation frustrates some pro-life lobbyists.

Incremental Fatalism?

Patrick Delaney, director of public policy for the Stafford, Va.-based American Life League, says the incremental approach is counterproductive.

“We need to be very circumspect about the legislation we call pro-life because if we are giving legal precedent to anything less than person-hood, we are fostering a political climate where no-compromise pro-life politicians who courageously stand up for all the children receive no political benefit for their courage,” Delaney said.

But Johnson at the National Right to Life Committee called Delaney's view “a formula for compete paralysis and inaction,” and defended Congress' current pro-life strategy.

“It's very hard to build a culture of life on a string of defeats,” Johnson said. “One must work within the political parties and make incremental progress possible. When there is a greater level of support in the Congress more substantial measures will be possible.”

Added Smith, “I would love to see a Human Life Amendment [protecting life from the moment of conception] tomorrow,” Smith said, “but we don't come anywhere close in the House or the Senate. Everywhere else we are going to push the envelope.”