WASHINGTON — If Democrats in Congress have their way, and if Barack Obama is elected president, a sweeping bill codifying the Roe v. Wade decision would reverse years of pro-life gains.

Obama told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund on July 17 that “The first thing I’ll do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act.”

First introduced in 1989, the Freedom of Choice Act (known as FOCA), would codify Roe v. Wade as a “fundamental right” and retroactively nullify all restrictions on abortion, specifically “every federal, state and local statute, ordinance, regulation, administrative order, decision, policy, practice, or other action enacted, adopted, or implemented before, on, or after the date of enactment of this act.”

In the last presidential debate, GOP candidate John McCain didn’t address FOCA directly, but reiterated his stance that Roe v. Wade was a “bad decision.”

“We have to change the culture of America,” he continued. “Those of us who are proudly pro-life understand that. And it’s got to be courage and compassion that we show to a young woman who’s facing this terribly difficult decision.”

The bill was reintroduced in April 2007 after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Gonzales v. Carhart decision, upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban signed by President Bush.

One of FOCA’s most vocal opponents has been Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert Finn. Bishop Finn is concerned that in the event of Obama winning the election, FOCA would soon be signed into law.

“It could be brought very quickly, especially with the majorities in both houses and a pro-abortion president. It would nullify any kind of limitations on abortion laws throughout the country on the federal, state and local level. That would include parental notification and permission laws and laws that prohibit taking a minor across state lines.”

Parental notification and permission laws are now in place in 44 states.

In a 2005 interview, FOCA co-sponsor Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told The Progressive magazine, “What we want, Democrats, and what we’ve always wanted, is to make abortion safe, legal and rare.”

For Bishop Finn, Boxer’s words ring hollow: “There are those who argue that somehow a president who would do more for the poor would somehow decrease abortions. But clearly this would be an action that would bring an end to many things that are successful in limiting the number of abortions. Some calculations of the benefit of these laws indicate that they are responsible for reducing the number of abortions annually by 125,000 or more.”

FOCA’s supporters insist that the act would simply codify Roe v. Wade.

Support for and opposition to FOCA runs almost directly along party lines, favoring Congress’ Democratic majority, although there are more pro-abortion Republicans than pro-life Democrats.

According to an ABC News report Oct. 14, Democrats are aiming for a supermajority in Congress this year. If the party can gain control of 60 seats in the Senate, they will have a filibuster-proof majority, allowing them to push through bolder policy changes.

One opponent to FOCA is U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo. Spokesman Steve Taylor said that Akin is opposed to “any legislation that would kill parental-notification laws. He’s been an ardent advocate of laws which promote the culture of life. This is the type of bill that would be in the exact opposite direction of what Congressman Akin and many in the pro-life community have been looking for for years.”

No Choice

Staffers for pro-choice Democrats seemed less willing to discuss their bosses’ positions. Of the 19 pro-choice senators and congressmen and congresswomen called for this story, only one offered a statement, delivered through a staff member: Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of California. “The Freedom of Choice Act was based on every woman’s basic civil right to make her health-care decisions with her doctor,” the statement said. “In our plural society, it is critical to remember that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is an intensely personal decision that no one takes lightly and that people of different faiths approach differently. This bill protects women’s health and is important to all Americans who value religious freedom, equality and privacy.”

Deidre McQuade, assistant director for policy and communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Secretariat, is quite familiar with FOCA and can’t see how Sanchez could interpret any “religious freedom” in the bill.

“It would establish abortion as a fundamental right against which discrimination would be illegal. It would wipe out and undermine every pro-life gain that has been made in the past 36 years. It would also undermine conscience rights, forcing doctors who oppose abortion to at very least, refer for them. It’s a strange notion of what conscience entails, that if you refer and let someone else do it that you are not complicit, as if you were not materially participating in the evil of abortion.”

Like Bishop Finn, McQuade believes that the few restrictions that exist on abortion are significant. “Abortions have been coming down, public opinion has been moving in the direction of life, and there have been very real laws put on the books, especially at the state level, that have reduced abortion rates, including parental involvement, informed consent and banning public funding. States that fund abortion see higher rates of abortion.”

McQuade’s outlook for a nation with FOCA as law is grim: “It is a very dangerous bill. It is very destructive for unborn children and for women. It is not currently up for a hearing or vote, but certain members of Congress have pledged that they would move it very quickly in January, given the opportunity to do so.”

How dangerous does McQuade find FOCA?

Even people who say they are pro-choice, she said, “should be nervous about this, “because anything that could potentially slow down a woman’s access to so-called ‘reproductive services,’ like safety regulations at abortion clinics, could potentially be deemed against the law as discriminatory against a fundamental right. Laws that require only licensed doctors to perform abortions would also be in danger, resulting in abortions being performed by nurses or midwives. This would put women at risk.”

Bishop Finn says pro-lifers should educate people now, and not hold out hope that the law will be overturned. “I’m not a constitutional lawyer,” he said, “and I don’t want to give people the hope that we could overturn FOCA, but instead, we should be very careful that it is never put in place.”

Robert Kumpel is based

in Valdosta, Georgia.