Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) said he was looking for help in a gut-wrenching vote when he told his House Appropriations Committee colleagues an unusually personal story.
The panel was debating a measure to prevent the Bush Administration's ban on abortion counseling at federally funded family planning clinics when Lewis recalled that a young woman who stayed with his family five years ago had visited one such clinic. After considering having an abortion, she was given a full range of choices and decided to keep her baby.
"Would that child be here if, indeed, that counseling wouldn't have been available?" Lewis asked.
Lewis, whose district includes half of Palmdale, ultimately voted with 29 Democrats and five other Republicans against spending money to implement the ban. His last-minute decision contributed to a larger-than-expected 35-20 margin. The issue, which was sparked by a May 23 Supreme Court ruling upholding the counseling restriction, now moves to the House floor.
Lewis, the third-ranking Republican as House Conference chairman, is likely to be a key figure in the politically charged controversy. He has been consistently anti-abortion and, even after opposing the Administration on Thursday, he said he's still agonizing over the issue.
"I will continue to, with some pain, review this issue and other issues related to it," Lewis said in an interview shortly after casting his vote. "I don't feel myself locked in on the floor. This is a very serious issue and a very close call."
Lewis said he did not consider his decision as a shift in his anti-abortion stance. The National Right to Life Committee supports the ban on counseling as necessary to ensure that family planning clinics provide contraception and other alternatives rather than steering women to abortions.
"I'm concerned that counseling not be advocacy, that these clinics are not suggesting that abortion is the only out," Lewis said. But, citing his personal experience, he added: "I'm further convinced that good counseling is available. . . .
"I don't view this as a pro-life, pro-choice issue. I feel very, very strongly about life, and I'm very, very concerned that we make certain that a woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy has every bit of information available to her."
Lewis declined to name the woman with the unwanted pregnancy, but he described her as a distant relative of his wife who was in her mid-20s at the time. She has since married and has two children. He also declined to identify the clinic, although he said he had determined that it is federally funded under the Title X program.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the Right to Life Committee, expressed skepticism Friday that the clinic was, in fact, federally funded.
"We're very skeptical that he's been accurately informed," Johnson said. "There's an abundance of testimony of the way abortion is generally presented to adolescents in these Title X clinics and it is generally presented as the sensible option for a woman with an unintended pregnancy."
And, he said, the committee will try in the days ahead to persuade Lewis to switch his vote.
"We certainly don't question his good faith nor his pro-life record," Johnson said. "But we will continue to seek to persuade him that the experience of that young woman is not the experience of typical adolescents who receive counseling."