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Pro-lifers on defense as Democrats take over Congress

WASHINGTON (BP)–Pro-life advocates expect primarily to play defense in the 110th Congress, seeking to protect favorable policies already in place while hoping for an unanticipated gain.

The shift in expectations exists as a result of the November elections, which produced a Democratic takeover of both the Senate and House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years when the new Congress was sworn in Jan. 4. The majority and leadership of a Democratic political party that promotes abortion rights in its platform have replaced the majority and leadership of a Republican party that defends the rights of the unborn and the infirm in its platform.

“I would be pleasantly surprised if this Congress passes any legislation favored by pro-life advocates,” said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, acknowledged to Baptist Press that pro-lifers “have got our work cut out for us.”

“Certainly, we are going to be spending a lot of our resources defending” pro-life policies, he said.

The pro-life movement lost about 12 votes, depending on the specific issue, in the House and from three to five votes in the Senate, Johnson said.

The Senate gained a pro-life Democrat in Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and the House added six pro-lifers from that party, according to Democrats for Life of America. The six are Jason Altmire and Chris Carney, both of Pennsylvania; Joe Donnelly and Brad Ellsworth, both of Indiana; Heath Shuler of North Carolina, and Charlie Wilson of Ohio. It remains to be seen on which measures Casey and the six congressmen will express pro-life sentiments and on which ones they will vote the party line.

While Duke is encouraged by the freshmen Democrats who ran as pro-lifers, he said, “[I]t is highly unlikely that those returning Democrats who obstructed nearly every pro-life bill when they were in the minority will do anything to promote pro-life values now that they are in the majority. If we are to see any pro-life gains in this Congress, we will need an extremely active grassroots base that will make sure they are heard on every piece of legislation that involves pro-life values.”

At least as significant as the losses in pro-life votes are the sympathies of those who are now leading both houses, beginning with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

The Democrats in crucial leadership positions are “strongly hostile” to the pro-life cause, Johnson told BP. Even Reid, who often is described as a pro-lifer, maintains a “very thin façade” and is one of the “most effective strategists” against pro-life measures, Johnson said.

Advancing pro-life measures to the floor will be especially difficult in the House, where the leadership “has enormous control,” he said.

The pro-life policies that would seem to be in the most danger are those attached to yearly spending bills, Johnson said. They would include, he said, the Hyde Amendment, which bars Medicaid funds for most abortions, and the Hyde-Weldon Amendment, which protects health care providers who refuse to participate in abortions. The measures are named for Henry Hyde, the newly retired congressman from Illinois whose pro-life leadership will be missed, and Rep. Dave Weldon, R.-Fla.

The odds are similar to those faced by pro-lifers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The first President Bush — George H.W. -– vetoed 10 efforts to repeal pro-life measures, Johnson said, during his administration, which was from 1989 to 1993.

“We’ve been in this situation before, and we held our own and even made some incremental progress, and we’ll try to do it again,” Johnson said.

Pro-lifers again have help in the White House.

“If we fail in our efforts to stop legislation that violates our pro-life values, I am very grateful that we have a president who will continue to act according to his convictions and veto legislation that threatens the lives of the most vulnerable among us, the unborn,” Duke said.

Democrats will quickly test pro-lifers’ ability to protect their policies. The House will take up Jan. 11 a bill to weaken President Bush’s rule on federal funding of stem cell research that destroys embryos. The proposal would permit grants for research that uses embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. Bush’s rule allows funds for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence when his policy was announced in August 2001.

Even with Republican majorities last year, the House and Senate both approved such a bill. Bush, however, used the first veto of his presidency on the legislation, and the House fell 51 votes short of an override. Unless numerous representatives reverse their votes this year, the House again will be unable to override a veto.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions. Their extraction from embryos, however, destroys the days-old human beings.

Despite its public hype, embryonic stem cell research has failed to produce any successful therapies in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals. Meanwhile, research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources -– such as bone marrow, fat and umbilical cord blood — has produced treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. Experiments with non-embryonic stem cells do not harm the donor.

A Democrat, Rep. Lincoln Davis of Tennessee, is sponsoring a measure that has gained the backing of most pro-lifers but will face opposition within his party. Davis introduced the Pregnant Women Support Act last year and has announced he will reintroduce it in this Congress. The proposal includes 14 programs designed to reduce the number of abortions in America by 95 percent during a 10-year period.