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Abortion fight continues in Congress over legislation, judge

WASHINGTON (BP)–Members of Congress continue to battle over abortion in a variety of areas.

Pro-lifers and pro-choicers have squared off recently over bankruptcy reform legislation, an attempt to weaken a restriction on population-control funds and the confirmation of a judicial nominee.

The House of Representatives recessed for its August break July 27, while the Senate is scheduled to do so by Aug. 5. Both houses will reconvene Labor Day week. In the last days before the recess, the three-decade-old controversy over abortion broke out again in the following ways:

— A conference committee of senators and representatives reported out a bill reforming bankruptcy law with a provision that bars peaceful pro-life protesters from filing for bankruptcy when fined by courts. A group of pro-life House members protested, however, delaying consideration of the bill until at least September.

— A Senate subcommittee has voted to change the language in a 17-year-old law in order to make it easier for a controversial United Nations population-control program to receive U.S. funds.

— Another Senate committee delayed a vote on Priscilla Owen, a federal appeals court nominee who has drawn opposition from abortion-rights organizations and pro-choice senators because of her opinions on Texas’ parental-notification law.

The long-delayed bankruptcy reform legislation stumbled over the same barrier that had prevented final action for many months. Sen. Charles Schumer, D.-N.Y., had attached to the Senate version a rider that, in essence, applied the principles of his Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act to bankruptcy law. The FACE Act, which became law in 1994, criminalized nonviolent protests at abortion clinics and empowered clinics to file civil suits for hefty sums against protesters who had not been convicted of a crime.

Pro-life House members refused to agree to Schumer’s rider.

In July, however, a committee of conferees from both chambers agreed to different language in the rider. It restricted the provision to those who violated the law by intentional action. It also limited application to those who protest a business because of its legal goods or services.

When the House received the conference report July 26 on the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection ACT, H.R. 333, some pro-lifers revolted. Among those refusing to agree to the conference report, according to Focus on the Family’s Citizen Issues Alert, were Republican Reps. Chris Smith of New Jersey, Mike Pence of Indiana, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, Todd Akin of Missouri, and Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, both of Arizona.

“We are going to expose many peaceful pro-life protesters to financial ruin by making these fines nondischargeable,” said Pence, according to The Washington Times.

As a result of the pro-lifers’ resistance, action was delayed until after the recess.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved July 18 next year’s Foreign Operations spending bill with a provision that would increase funding for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) to $50 million and make it nearly impossible for the White House to withhold the funds.

The measure would change the law to require a finding that a family planning program directly supports coercive activities before funds could be withheld, a congressional aide told Baptist Press. The current law, the 1985 Kemp-Kasten Amendment, prohibits family planning money from going to any entity that, as determined by the president, “supports or participates in the management of a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”

The committee action came only four days before the Bush administration announced it would not release $34 million in funds approved this year for the UNFPA because of its involvement with China’s coercive population-control program.

“It is shocking that the Senate is now attempting to change the law to allow for the funding of coercive programs,” Rep. Chris Smith said in a written statement. “By attempting to change the law, they are conceding that the UNFPA may never meet human rights standards. Instead of seeking to weaken the law, they should help women who have been victimized and pressure the UNFPA to divest itself of programs that rely on coercion.”

Critics of the new language charge it would establish a standard that could not be met to prove the UNFPA supports coercive practices. If the Senate approves the new version, it is not certain the House would defeat it. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R.-Ariz., chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, has said he supports changing the law in order to fund UNFPA, a congressional staff member said.

The State Department announced July 22 the funds would be withheld because it determined contributions to the organization would violate Kemp-Kasten. The funding instead will go for population assistance through the Child Survival and Health Program Fund of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The UNFPA provided computers and vehicles to Chinese population-control offices, a State Department spokesman said.

Last year, an independent investigation provided evidence the UNFPA was helping in China’s program. A team from the Population Research Institute, an American pro-life organization, reported witnesses told it in September the family planning in a UNFPA-run program was not voluntary.

In December, China’s National People’s Congress placed into law a population-control policy that had been in effect for more than two decades. The policy limits couples in urban areas to one child and those in rural areas to two, if the first is a girl. Other exceptions have been made in some provinces, and the enforcement of the policy has varied among provinces. Not only has the program resulted in coercive sterilization and abortion, but infanticide, especially of baby girls, also has been reported.

President Reagan and the first President Bush both withheld funds for UNFPA based on their findings that the agency was involved in China’s coercive program.

On July 30, the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed a vote on Owen, whom Bush nominated to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Democrats on the committee challenged Owen in a July 23 hearing, largely because of the Texas Supreme Court justice’s opinions on a state law requiring parental notification for a minor before she may obtain an abortion. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., Judiciary Committee chairman, suddenly scheduled a July 30 vote on Owen the day before. Republicans were able to delay the vote until after the recess.

The 1999 Texas law mandating parental notification contained a provision enabling a judge to grant an exception if he deems the underage girl mature and well-informed. In most of the cases that reached the state high court, Owen opposed a judicial bypass for minors requesting one.

The Fifth Circuit consists of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The appeals court is based in New Orleans.

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