GOP abortion rights conference under way

By KATHY A. GAMBRELL, UPI White House Reporter  |  Feb. 26, 2002 at 6:12 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Moderate Republican lawmakers delivered a call to action on Tuesday seeking support for abortion-rights initiatives and legislation affecting funding for family planning organizations and the continued ability of U.S. women to get abortions.

"We need to strengthen our position and broaden our base," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

The Republican Pro-Choice Coalition launched its second annual conference with supporters gathering in Washington to examine national policies surrounding reproductive health issues.

During the first day of the two-day conference, lawmakers focused on congressional action on family planning, federal regulation and efforts to expand the number of abortion-rights Republicans with seats in Congress.

Some GOP conservatives have long sought to overturn the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision, which paved the way for women in the United States to access abortion services.

Religious conservatives who helped propel President George W. Bush into the White House believed he would work to overturn the ruling. So far that has not happened.

Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift said Republicans who support abortion rights could respectfully agree to disagree. In her remarks to the coalition, she said the party needed more members who support abortion rights to run for gubernatorial seats.

While Republicans who favor abortion rights were the majority within the party, Swift said, they were the "silent majority."

"I am a Republican because of the freedom it provides. Our position on the choice question is consistent with the ideals of our party," Swift said. "But we are often out-flanked and out-organized."

Snowe highlighted the Bush White House's halt to funding for international family planning organizations. Hours after taking office, Bush halted U.S. aid to the organizations, saying they promoted abortion. Approximately 143 members of Congress have asked Bush to restore the funding, Snowe said. She pointed to reports that childbirth in countries such as Afghanistan remained unsafe and the lack of family planning dollars contributed to the loss of thousands of children under the age of 5.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who stopped by the conference briefly, made the case for stem-cell research, for which Bush restricted federal funding last August. Stem cells, unspecialized cells, can be gleaned from several sources, such as placenta, umbilical cords and adult cells, but scientists say those derived from human embryos are most useful for therapeutic and research applications. Anti-abortion advocates opposed the use of human embryos.

"We're locked in a great battle on stem cell and cloning. We're facing a floor vote on therapeutic cloning," said Specter. "Stem cells provide the most promising treatment (for diseases) in history. Right now we don't have the votes in the Senate. The House already banned it. If we lose the vote, we will face the biggest fight since (they) fought to say the world wasn't flat."

Also of concern to the coalition was the Bush administration's proposed regulation that would effectively raise the status of an unborn fetus, giving it expanded protection under the Children's Health Insurance Program. Under the regulation set to become part of the Federal Register in a few weeks, a child would be covered under the program from conception to age 18.

The coalition also saw problems with the Unborn Victim of Violence Act that would recognize an unborn child as a separate victim of a violent crime.

Allison Herwitt, director of government relations for the National Abortion Rights Action League, said the measure gives an embryo the same status as a woman. The House passed the measure, but it has yet to come before the U.S. Senate, Herwitt said. While Herwitt was confident that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., would not bring the measure to a vote, she said it was possible an anti-abortion lawmaker may attempt to attach it as an amendment to a separate bill.

Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal spoke on the threat of violence to abortion clinics across the country. Smeal maintained that extremists seeking to harm clinic workers using physical violence should be considered as dangerous as the terrorists that Bush was pursuing in Afghanistan.

She pointed to anti-abortion groups such as the Army of God and its supporter Neal Horsley who she said advocates threats of violence against clinics and medical personnel. She said some anti-abortion activists have set up Web cams outside abortion clinics to film women coming in and leaving. And she also pointed to Army of God member Clayton Lee Waagner who was linked to letters claiming to contain anthrax sent to more than 200 abortion clinics last year.

The FBI arrested Waagner in December.

"What we have been saying throughout the Clinton administration and now in the Bush administration is that it is not enough to get the long shooter, but those who aid, abet and support them," Smeal said.

She wondered who was funding the groups and suggested they were part of larger, more sophisticated networks. Those networks, she said, likely provided false passports and other documents to extremists accused of shooting doctors who provided abortions, such as Barnett Slepian.

Slepian was killed by a single shot from a high-powered rifle in his Amherst, N.Y., home in 1998. James Charles Kopp, who earned a place on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List, was indicted by a federal grand jury in the incident. Kopp fled to France, and the FBI has been attempting to extradite him back to the United States.

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