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Abortion again a big issue in campaign
Carla Marinucci, Chronicle Political Writer
Washington -- From the halls of Congress to the offices and watering holes where campaigns are shaped, politicians are feeling the tremors from a U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion that threatens to shake up the competitive 2008 race for the White House.
The nation's highest court, in a 5-4 decision released Wednesday, reversed two lower court rulings and upheld a law passed by the former Republican-controlled Congress that banned a specific method for late-term abortions.
The decision, experts say, delivered an immediate political energy boost to the conservative anti-abortion armies, a key GOP constituency to an ardently anti-abortion Republican president desperately in need of a political victory. At the same time, it brought the issue to the forefront for Democrats.
To many abortion rights supporters, the court's ruling underscored the huge stakes for the next presidential election and dramatized the deep rift between those who view abortion as a moral issue and those who consider it a personal health matter.
"This isn't really an abortion issue," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, as she walked the Capitol on Friday. "That is what really saddens me about what the justices said.
"This is about a procedure that any parent would want her daughter to have access to if she needed it. And to frame it as an abortion issue is doing a disservice to medicine and to our young women and our country. So I hope we can get the focus back on the fact that this Supreme Court is deciding what medical procedures are necessary for child-bearing women."
But Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, an anti-abortion conservative Republican and presidential candidate, noted that abortion is an election issue for presidential hopefuls -- even those such as GOP front-runner Rudolph Giuliani -- who previously touted their pro-choice credentials.
Giuliani "has now come to our side" on the issue of abortion in the wake of the ruling -- as candidates compete for voters in battlegrounds like Iowa and New Hampshire, Tancredo said Friday with a wry smile.
"Excuse me for being cynical," Tancredo said, "but usually conversions occur on the road to Damascus -- not on the road to Des Moines."
The court's decision let stand a federal ban on an abortion procedure called "partial-birth" by opponents.
The procedure, known medically as intact dilation and extraction, is generally performed in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy, often after a diagnosis of fetal abnormality. Rather than the more common practice of dismembering the fetus in the womb, the doctor partly removes the intact fetus from the uterus before aborting it, usually by puncturing its skull. The 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act outlawed the procedure, but the law was found unconstitutional by the lower courts. Among the five Supreme Court justices who upheld the law were Bush's two appointees -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
With less than a year to go before the first key presidential primaries and caucuses, the political tug-of-war reaction showed that the Supreme Court ruling "has placed the issue back on the agenda for the (presidential party) nominations," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "And it will have its greatest impact there -- because nominations are a question of turnout."
The ruling means "conservative Christians finally have something that they can show their people that's tangible. They have been backing Republicans since (former President Ronald) Reagan -- and what do they have to show for it? They can't even get Republican presidents to address them at their rallies," Sabato said. The court's ruling "may keep them engaged."
Moreover, the court's decision "gives both sides an element, an extra dimension beyond the Iraq war to get out the vote," he added.
Amy Everitt, the California director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said her side will be as energized as conservatives going forward because the Supreme Court decision is a stark reminder "that elections matter."
"The (Republican-led) anti-choice Congress and president used the political process to push this all the way to the Supreme Court. This law trumps all state law -- and the Supreme Court just said a woman's health is no longer paramount and a core tenant of Roe is out the door," she said, referring to Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 law that legalized abortion.
Democrats, who now narrowly control both houses of Congress, theoretically are in a position to try to pass a new law making the procedure legal. But they have shown no enthusiasm for taking on such a hot-button issue as they seek to protect their slim majorities in the 2008 elections.
Instead, within 24 hours of the court's decision, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., reintroduced her Freedom of Choice Act, which would allow for a woman's health and welfare to be factored into the decision to have a late-term abortion under the procedure banned by the court. A similar bill was introduced in the House.
On the presidential campaign front, the energy on both sides was evident.
Republican presidential candidates immediately united in support of the Supreme Court ruling.
Among Democratic presidential hopefuls, who all support abortion rights, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton demonstrated she is keenly aware of the issue. Clinton was not a co-sponsor of Boxer's proposal last year -- but when Boxer reintroduced the measure last week, Clinton made clear she will be signing on as a co-sponsor.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, the most uncompromisingly liberal of the Democratic candidates, said the concerns raised by last week's decision are far broader than abortion -- and Democrats marching toward the White House shouldn't forget them.
"What the Supreme Court did was quite invasive of that very sacred sphere of a woman's health and privacy," he said Friday. "But if our society is truly committed to life, then all of us need to close ranks behind a program which will show real concern for life. And that includes prenatal care, postnatal care, child care, a living wage, universal health care -- and the end of war," he said. "Then we will have achieved a much more tolerable expression of support for life than the Supreme Court did. "
Karen Hanretty, a Fox News commentator and Republican strategist, said that if presidential candidates want to criticize the court, they may also have to deal with some stark -- and emotional -- issues.
"I'd like to see the Democrats go out and fight for partial-birth abortion. It's a gruesome procedure and so far out of the mainstream that, as far as political support is concerned, it's not going to be a big issue," Hanretty said. "Even pro-choice voters draw a line in the sand -- and where they draw the line is partial-birth abortion."
But Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, said as the 2008 election draws closer the court's decision will help voters focus on the deep and lasting effects that judges, as much as presidents, have on their lives.
"It shows how important these Supreme Court picks are," she said. "These decisions have significant long-term consequences -- especially when you pick justices who are presumably in good health and in their 40s and early 50s. They could be writing these decisions -- and voting the wrong way, in my opinion -- for 25 years.
"These are not trivial choices."