Partial Victory

Anti-abortion forces may have lost a battle over the Santorum bill, but they might now be winning the war.


David Corn
May 23, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

WASHINGTON -- after days of flashing explicit drawings on the Senate floor of a late-term abortion procedure, Sen. Rick Santorum, a fresh-faced conservative Republican from Pennsylvania, fell just three votes short of collecting the 67 votes he needed to ensure the bill criminalizing this abortion method would become law over President Clinton's expected veto. Another defeat for anti-abortion forces? No. Because Santorum triumphed on a far larger matter: He has redefined the politics of the debate. The question now is: Are Santorum and his "pro-life" comrades sharp enough to capitalize on this mighty accomplishment?

The anti-abortion movement has long been foundering on Capitol Hill. Despite the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, there was no rush to push anti-abortion legislation. The Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed even stated that he did not expect the new GOP majority to deal with this thorny issue immediately -- a major admission of weakness in the anti-abortion ranks. At the 1996 convention, abortion was a strictly second-string issue.

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Santorum and a few other Republican legislators managed to roar back by targeting an abortion procedure that is easy to dislike: intact dilation and excavation. They also gave it an emotive label that has stuck: "partial birth abortion." In the process -- primarily used in the later months of pregnancy -- a doctor brings the lower half of a fetus out of the woman and then sucks the brains out, ending the life of the fetus before removing it. It is not a pretty exercise.

Santorum's legislation would have made it illegal to perform an intact D&E unless the mother's life was at stake. Even though it ignored a few realities -- the bill appears to be inconsistent with Supreme Court precedents and it would stop very few actual abortions -- the "partial-birth" label succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of Democratic supporters of abortion rights. Those gruesome pictures! Only two Senate Democrats spoke out against the Santorum measure on the Senate floor: Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both of California.

Much more significantly, Minority Leader Tom Daschle felt compelled to offer a substitute. His bill, which lost 64-36 last week, would have outlawed the abortion of any viable fetus -- that is, a fetus that is developed enough to survive outside the womb. But the legislation did allow exceptions for when a mother's life or health is endangered. The proposal had its own set of problems: How does one define viability? What health risks would permit an abortion? Nevertheless, Daschle's bill won the support of most Democrats and Clinton said he would sign it. The Republicans, peeved that Daschle was trying to undermine the Santorum legislation, stayed away.

But a major breech had occurred, as abortion rights advocates were quick to realize. Daschle's bill, if passed, would have marked the first time since Roe vs. Wade that an entire category of abortions would be banned by federal law. And this historic endeavor was being led by Democrats!

Some abortion opponents grasped the political significance of Daschle's proposal, too. Conservative strategists Bill Bennett and William Kristol, crowing that Daschle's legislation marked a tremendous conceptual victory for the anti-abortion movement, have been urging Republicans in the last few days to revive it. Their point is a simple one: Once you start banning categories of abortion, however rare, who knows where it will stop? The restrictions may be modest at first but they set a foundation for broader limits in the future. You now have the chance, Bennett and Kristol are telling Republicans, to rope the Democrats into an anti-abortion framework.

Not all abortion foes are ready to go along. Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right To Life Committee, decried the Daschle as "just for show." And he is correct, to a degree. The Daschle bill was a bit of a bluff, cover for Democrats who did not want to vote for Santorum's bill but who were spooked by Santorum's pictures and the thought of being portrayed as favoring "partial-birth" abortions. But in his attempt to provide Democrats shelter from the storm, Daschle conceded an enormous amount of ground. If the Republicans were smart, they would follow the Bennett-Kristol advice and exploit the opportunity Daschle has offered up to them. But if anti-abortion activists, out of ideological rigidity, continue, in Johnson's words, to have "nothing to do with" the Daschle bill, that opportunity will be lost.

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Abortion rights proponents must be praying that their opponents will wind up choosing purity over clever compromise.


David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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