WASHINGTON – Congressional passage of the first federal restrictions on a woman's legal right to abortion is certain to be an issue in the 2004 election, especially for two Democratic presidential candidates who have opposed abortion rights.
Dick Gephardt (search), the former House minority leader, voted with the Republican majority last year for legislation that would ban partial-birth abortion (search). In 1996, the Missouri congressman voted to overturn then-President Clinton's veto of a similar bill.
Gephardt missed the vote earlier this month on the ban, and his campaign said Tuesday he would not support it without a provision addressing the health of the mother.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search) of Ohio has voted to impose restrictions on abortion rights during his four terms in the House, but earlier this year said his position has changed and he's a strong advocate. Kucinich voted present when the House considered a ban in July 2002; he voted against the legislation earlier this month.
The Senate cleared the bill Tuesday on a vote of 64-34, sending it to President Bush for his expected signature.
The three Senate Democrats pursuing the party nomination -- Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina -- have voted against the ban. On Tuesday, Lieberman and Kerry cast votes against it; Edwards missed the vote but issued a statement saying he opposed it.
After the vote, Kerry's campaign issued a statement accusing the president of managing a silent campaign against abortion rights. "This vote is a step backward for women, as George Bush's stealth agenda to roll back the right to choose is pushed forward," Kerry said.
Howard Dean, a medical doctor, Vermont's former governor and the early front-runner in the campaign, expressed outrage at the Senate's decision to prohibit a valid medical procedure. "As a physician, I am outraged that the Senate has decided it is qualified to practice medicine," Dean said in a statement. "This bill will chill the practice of medicine and endanger the lives of countless women."
The legislation, the first limitations on a constitutional right since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, will resonate with Democratic primary voters, especially women. It remains to be seen how they view the individual candidates on the issue.
"When people see Roe v. Wade at risk, they vote for the pro-choice position," said Ellen Malcolm, president of the pro-choice group EMILY's List. "If they think everything is fine, then it's not in the top three. But the minute they think the right of choice is under threat, then the issue rises to the top tier."
Some Democratic activists say the actions of Congress will do more to energize voters to oppose President Bush and the Republicans in the general election.
"It certainly solidifies the position of George Bush and the majority in Congress as being anti-choice," said Kathy Sullivan, the Democratic Party chairwoman in New Hampshire. "In terms of the Democrats, the important thing is that they be pro-choice, not when they became pro-choice."
Abortion rights advocates agreed.
"In general, we're confident we've got nine pro-choice candidates, any one of whom would do a far better job than the incumbent," said David Seldin, communications director for NARAL-Pro-Choice America.
The campaigns of Wesley Clark and Al Sharpton said their candidates oppose the ban. Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun voted against it 1996.