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Last Week’s Elections Spur Groups on Both Sides of the Abortion Debate to Step up Advocacy Efforts


RENEE MONTAGNE, host: Among the winners in last week’s election were those opposed to abortion rights. President Bush, an abortion-rights opponent, was re-elected over abortion-rights backer John Kerry, and the new Congress will include more members in both the House and Senate who want to make abortion illegal. But the biggest benefit for anti-abortion activists may be the perception that their side is gaining support. NPR’s Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER reporting: Despite its high profile as a political issue, many candidates have been remarkably reticent to talk about abortion. They leave most of the arguing to advocacy groups on both sides. Political scientist John Green of the University of Akron says that’s because politicians as a group are risk-averse.

Mr. JOHN GREEN (University of Akron): To the extent that a particular issue is seen as controversial and problematic, there’s a natural tendency for members of Congress or other political leaders to shy away from it.

ROVNER: But that seemed to change in this campaign, at least for those opposed to abortion rights. Carol Tobias is political director of the National Right to Life Committee.

Ms. CAROL TOBIAS (Political Director, National Right to Life Committee): We have been very successful in election after election in getting the pro-life people out to vote. It’s always been an advantage for pro-life candidates to have that position. What we’re seeing, though, is that they’re more willing to come out publicly and talk about it, which is definitely a shift.

ROVNER: Among those leading the shift was President Bush. He rarely talked about the issue four years ago, but this year, says Tobias, the president put it front and center.

Ms. TOBIAS: It was kind of laced throughout his speeches that he supported a culture of life, that he supported protection for innocent human life, that he was very proud of some of the bills that he had signed in the last couple of years, and our people were very excited to hear him talk about it, and they worked extremely hard to help get him re-elected.

ROVNER: Much of the president’s emphasis on the issue was part of his strategy to mobilize Christian conservative voters, says political scientist John Green. But Green says it also illustrates a growing move by conservatives to lay claim to that amorphous phrase `moral values’ and that having done so made opposition to abortion safer to talk about.

Mr. GREEN: Because of this perception that conservative values are, in some sense, on the ascendancy, then talking about these issues for conservatives is not seen as a risky thing to do. In fact, it might even be seen as the right thing to do politically.

ROVNER: Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of the group NARAL Pro-Choice America, says recapturing the moral values issue is at the top of her side’s to-do list.

Ms. ELIZABETH CAVENDISH (Interim President, NARAL Pro-Choice America): We have a story to tell about values. We’re in support of American freedom, autonomy, dignity, privacy. We support running honest campaigns and making people feel secure and secure in their liberties. And that’s a value story, and I think we, in the soul searching we’re doing here, are saying, `We need to fight back on values,’ because we have good values.

ROVNER: Those on both sides agree that the numbers in Congress, where both the House and Senate already had anti-abortion majorities, actually changed by only a handful of votes. But Cavendish says what changed more is the intensity of that opposition, illustrated by people like the senator-elect from Oklahoma.

Ms. CAVENDISH: I think the level of virulence is frightening, that a Tom Coburn, who had called for the death penalty for abortionists, could win is a pretty frightening prospect.

ROVNER: Frances Kissling is president of the abortion-rights group Catholics for a Free Choice. She says part of her side’s problem is that abortion opponents have done a better job appealing to the large middle group of Americans who oppose abortion but also think it should remain legal.

Ms. FRANCES KISSLING (President, Catholics for a Free Choice): I think that the answer is that the side that finds a way to talk about both women and fetal life in respectful and positive terms has a much better chance of reaching out to the uncommitted. And so far, the pro-choice movement hasn’t figured out how to do this.

ROVNER: In fact, for all the discussion now under way on both sides, overall public opinion on abortion has remained surprisingly stable in recent years. In fact, the same exit polls that showed large numbers of voters citing moral values as their top priority also showed majority support for legal abortion at a rate virtually unchanged from four years ago.

This program originally aired on NPR Morning Edition.

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