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Abortion fight is ‘enduring divide’

July 24, 2009

From USA Today:

WASHINGTON — During confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., asked whether she believed court rulings on abortion had ended the national controversy.

The incendiary debate over abortion rights endures and can be jarring, as when abortion opponents interrupted at several points the Senate Judiciary Committee session with Sotomayor. The controversy has boiled up in other ways in the days since then.

Thursday, a day after President Obama‘s prime-time pitch for an overhaul of the health care system, Americans United for Life and other abortion opponents accelerated their resistance to Democratic proposals. A day earlier, abortion rights supporters presented members of Congress with a report, tied to the killing of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller in May, documenting harassment, threats and physical assaults on physicians who provide abortions.

Nearly four decades after the Supreme Court made abortion legal nationwide and nearly two decades after the justices reaffirmed the right, the political saliency of abortion persists

“The enduring divide represents the reality that there are fundamental religious differences on the issue of abortion that do not exist on, say, campaign finance or even on health care,” says Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which issued the report Wednesday about threats at clinics that provide abortions.

From the other side of the debate, the health care deliberations and the Supreme Court nomination are particularly energizing.

“Judge Sotomayor represents the future of the Supreme Court,” says Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, which would like to win reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal nationwide. Yoest testified against Sotomayor, who would be President Obama’s first appointment and the first Hispanic justice.

As a lower court judge, Sotomayor never ruled on abortion rights and, like nominees before her, she declined to tell senators her position on the issue.

Yoest said activists against abortion are mobilizing tens of thousands of people to urge members of Congress to ensure that any new health care law excludes the abortion procedure, so insurance companies would not be required to pay for it and no government funds would go toward it. (Law dating to the 1970s prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the woman’s life is endangered.)

A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll demonstrates how the abortion issue continues to divide Americans. Of those polled, 78% said they wanted abortion to be legal under at least some circumstances and 18% said they wanted it always illegal.

When respondents were asked whether they considered themselves “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” 46% chose the former category, 47% the latter.

Of the 78% who want abortion to be legal at least under some circumstances, 21% said abortion should be legal under any circumstances.

The percentages have fluctuated in recent years, as have the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” responses.

Asked about the dichotomy of people calling themselves “pro-life” but saying they want abortion to be legal, Yoest says the numbers may appear “a little bit weird but … make sense.”

She termed it “quintessentially American” that some people would be against abortion as a personal matter but not ready to impose their views on others.

The Supreme Court that Sotomayor is poised to join is deeply split on abortion.

A five-justice majority has long backed the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Yet a different five-justice majority (with Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote among the nine) has recently allowed more government regulation of the abortion procedure.

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