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The Abortion Issue: Feuding Without End : Foes in Congress renew attacks on a right of women

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Abortion is the issue that won’t go away, the one where compromise seems impossible and victory--viewed by opponents as criminalization of the procedure--still tempts too many in the House and the Senate. Every time this divisive issue seems settled, it isn’t. Once again attempts to curb access to legal abortions are being pushed to the top of the national agenda. This is happening despite polls suggesting that Americans want government to act not to curb abortion rights but to address social needs such as education and health care.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision last year clearly upholding the legal right of women to obtain an abortion, the strategy this time around in Congress is different. Anti-abortion activists are pursuing an incrementalist approach, steadily curbing access to the procedure here, defunding it there. But their objective is the same as always: Make the procedure difficult to obtain, prohibitively expensive for poor women and physically risky for physicians and women alike.

Much damage has already been done. Three weeks ago the House amended its huge defense reauthorization bill to deny abortion services at U.S. military hospitals to women stationed overseas--even when paid for with their own money. This measure would reverse President Clinton’s 1993 executive order permitting female service personnel and military spouses to obtain these services at their own expense. Such access is crucial; before Clinton acted, women facing unintended pregnancies often were forced to seek abortions privately at great cost and great risk in countries where the procedure is illegal. The Senate Armed Services Committee last week defeated a similar amendment, but it will be brought up again on the Senate floor.

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Other measures also are pending. One ill-advised amendment to another appropriations bill would rescind the requirement that medical schools at all public universities teach abortion procedures to obstetrics and gynecology residents. Knowledge of the procedure ought to be mandatory for members of that specialty, and not only because it can be used to save the life of a hemorrhaging pregnant woman in an emergency or to treat post-menopausal bleeding.

A bill barring federal health care plans from covering abortions for federal employees passed a key House subcommittee last month. Some members of Congress also hope to reimpose a gag rule on federally funded family planning clinics, barring personnel there from counseling women with unintended pregnancies on their full range of options, including abortion. Abortion opponents are even threatening the GOP’s own welfare reform proposals through their fear that eliminating cash grants to teen-age mothers could have the effect of encouraging them to seek abortions.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), joined by seven colleagues in the Senate and others in the House, wants to halt this continuing erosion of a legal right of women. She has introduced a bill that would safeguard the right to an abortion by codifying existing court rulings and executive orders. Her bill faces long odds but makes sense: Unwanted pregnancies, unfortunately, remain a fact of life. The sooner Americans stop fighting the endlessly divisive abortion battle, the sooner we can use the energy saved by that truce to take on the social problems everyone agrees need fixing.

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