Abortion Is Shaping Up as Key '04 Election Issue

Times Staff Writer

Signaling that abortion may emerge as an important issue in next year's presidential election, a national abortion-rights organization began airing a television ad this week targeting President Bush for signing into law a ban on a controversial form of the procedure.

The ad, by NARAL Pro-Choice America, hits Bush for approving a federal law prohibiting a procedure some people call "partial-birth" abortion. Opponents say the law does not allow an exception for the protection of a woman's health.

The ad began airing Wednesday in Iowa and New Hampshire -- the two states holding the first contests of the presidential primary season -- and Washington. The group spent half a million dollars to run its message for a week.

"The purpose of running the ads in those states was to model for people engaged in the political process how you confront the president on this issue," said David Seldin, a spokesman for the organization, previously known as the National Abortion Rights and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).

Political analysts have said abortion would not become a factor in the primary elections because Bush stood squarely for the law, while all nine Democratic candidates opposed it. But those two views will collide when the Republican and Democratic nominees square off next fall.

The procedure, outlawed by legislation Bush signed on Wednesday, typically is performed by doctors in the second three months of pregnancy, when the fetus can't survive outside the womb. The fetus is removed from a woman's uterus in a procedure physicians sometimes call "dilation and extraction."

Three federal courts issued injunctions this week blocking enforcement of the law, in response to lawsuits that claimed legal precedents do not allow restrictions on abortion that do not contain an exception to protect women's health. Abortion opponents insist the procedure is elective and that no such exception is needed.

Republican political consultant Arnold Steinberg said the president based his action on deeply held personal beliefs. His stand also "satisfies his base" -- religious conservatives who make up an estimated 40% of Bush's electoral supporters, Steinberg said.

Any restriction on abortion is anathema to most liberal Democrats. And opinion surveys show the nation split fairly evenly. A majority favor upholding the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion. A poll conducted earlier this year for the Los Angeles Times found that 58% of Americans favored a "partial-birth" abortion ban, as long as it allowed women to have the procedure if it was needed to protect their own health.

The most important function of this week's debate may be in reminding voters of the abortion issue and a larger question hanging over next year's election: Who will select justices for the U.S. Supreme Court? Two solid supporters of the court's Roe decision -- Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor -- are likely to retire within a few years.

Both sides believe the next president is likely to name their replacements and tip the court for or against abortion.

"The most crucial aspect in this is how it ties into the whole judicial-selection process," said Eric Davis, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. "There will be a massive fight over replacing them."

The high emotion surrounding the bill became evident immediately. The National Right to Life Committee, Traditional Values Coalition and other antiabortion groups applauded Bush's signing of the bill.

The Right to Life committee called it "the culmination of an eight-year struggle" to win the first national restriction on abortion in 30 years.

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