NEW YORK – Abortion-rights groups and Senate Democrats are challenging their opponents to bridge the deep divide over abortion by working together to reduce unintended pregnancies. Thus far, those calls to seek common ground have been greeted mostly with silence or ridicule.
Republican leaders have virtually ignored the Democrats' Prevention First (search) bill, which proposes a multipronged effort to bolster family-planning programs. "It's been met with deafening silence," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader who introduced the bill as one of his 10 priorities for the new session.
Similarly, a high-profile appeal for common ground in a recent speech by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has received little positive response from abortion foes. Dave Andrusko, a commentator with the National Right to Life Committee (search), derided the New York senator's overtures as "meaningless" and "phony."
Referring to Reid and Clinton, Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council (search) said, "Their idea of reducing unintended pregnancies is more sex education and distribution of contraceptives. ... That's not the solution, that's part of the problem."
"If they want to start promoting abstinence, fine — but they won't," Perkins added.
Reid's bill, co-sponsored by Clinton and 16 of her colleagues, focuses on the fact that nearly half of America's 3 million annual unintended pregnancies end in abortion. The bill proposes to reduce the need for such abortions by:
—More than doubling, to $643 million, federal funding for family-planning clinics.
—Encouraging states to subsidize family planning services for more low-income women.
—Requiring private health plans to cover prescription contraceptives to the same extent they cover prescription drugs.
—Promoting emergency contraception, and ensuring its availability at hospitals that treat rape victims.
—Requiring federally funded abstinence-only education programs to provide accurate information when they broach the topic of contraceptives (search).
—Though Reid is one of the few Democratic senators opposed to abortion, his bill is embraced by abortion-rights groups.
"If the Republicans really are serious about reducing abortions in this country, they'll join his initiative," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America (search). "If they don't, it exposes how extreme and fringe their position is compared to the rest of America."
Democrats doubt the GOP leadership will allow the bill to come to a vote.
Calls to the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., produced no appraisal of Reid's bill or the broader question of common ground in the abortion debate. GOP leaders don't want to get dragged into negotiations on abortion-related issues, a press aide to another Republican senator said.
The New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute (search), which researches reproductive health issues, is one of several abortion-rights groups warning that family-planning programs face erosion nationwide because of expected funding cuts and pressure from conservative groups.
In a report Tuesday, the institute said there is a widening gap between women's birth-control needs and the availability of affordable services. It said family-planning clinics are able to serve only 40 percent of the 17 million women who need subsidized contraception — placing increasing strains on Medicaid-funded services at a time when that program faces cutbacks.
"It would have been easier to reach common ground a decade ago, when these issues were more bipartisan," said the institute's president, Sharon Camp. "Some anti-abortion politicians were for family planning, and they were able to bring the two sides together. Now, other than Harry Reid, it's hard to see any politician in Congress who fits that mold."
Cynthia Dailard, a Guttmacher policy analyst, said family planning and contraception access are difficult issues for some Republicans.
"They recognize it's not in their interest to come out against birth control in a major way — they'd alienate the vast majority of American women who use it," Dailard said. "At the same time, they don't want to alienate the part of their base that's extreme on this issue, so they're saying nothing."
Clinton, in her speech Jan. 24, told family-planning activists that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare," and urged anti-abortion leaders to join in a common effort to reduce unintended pregnancies.
One of the few conservatives voicing interest in the speech is Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition (search). He said in a telephone interview that Clinton could prove her good faith by meeting with him and campaigning to promote teen abstinence.
"Is she serious, or was it just a political ploy?" Mahoney asked.