Rep. Louise Slaughter

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–The Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus is seeing a resurgence in strength as moderate members from both parties seek to hold the line against anti-abortion measures put forth by President Bush and a conservative, Republican-dominated House.

After Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in 1994, the bipartisan House Pro-Choice Caucus lost members. Many members made themselves scarce because of repeated attempts by anti-abortion GOP activists to persuade them to vote for measures that would ban so-called “partial-birth” abortions.

The political ground has shifted since then toward the middle. Democrats reclaimed the Senate in early 2001. And in the past year, there has been major growth in the House Pro-Choice Caucus, led by Democrats Louise Slaughter of New York and Diana DeGette of Colorado and Republicans Constance Morella of Maryland and James Greenwood of Pennsylvania.

Bush’s Anti-Abortion Actions Fuel Growth of Caucus

That growth from the low double-digits in the late 1990s to today’s 141 members has been fueled partly in response to Bush’s early actions. On his first day in office, Bush reinstated what is known as the “global gag rule,” prohibiting U.S. funds from supporting international family-planning activities that include any discussion of abortion. Former President Bill Clinton had lifted the ban, which was first imposed during the Reagan administration.

Bush’s move “was a real wake-up call,” says Julia Ernst, legislative counsel for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. Close on the heels of the gag-rule action came Bush’s nomination of one of the Senate’s most ardent religious conservatives, Missouri Republican John Ashcroft, to be attorney general.

Pro-choice legislators failed to defeat Ashcroft’s nomination. This spring, however, with more House members joining the Pro-Choice Caucus and putting pressure on their Senate colleagues, the Senate Judiciary Committee blocked Bush’s nomination of Judge Charles Pickering for a federal appeals court seat, partly because of his support for efforts to create rights for fetuses under a federal child health program. What Ernst calls the “great growth and strength” of the House Pro-Choice Caucus since early 2001 likely influenced senators who ultimately derailed the Pickering nomination.

Caucus leaders also have been fighting to free the $34 million U.S. donation to the United Nations Population Fund, which the White House has frozen while it investigates charges that the agency promotes abortion. The funds would protect financing of sex education programs and contraceptives, but these efforts would be scaled back by Bush proposals to fund “abstinence-only” education programs instead. Caucus members have backed other initiatives, including broadening research on women’s health programs and proposals requiring hospitals to give emergency contraceptive care to rape victims.

The Pro-Choice Caucus, at its core, represents a bipartisan signal to the White House that any attempt to limit legal abortion or to roll back Roe v. Wade principles, through judicial nominations or legislative action, will not be tolerated, says Slaughter.

Unlike congressional committees, a caucus is made up of members who voluntarily associate with it but are not bound to vote the same way, no matter what the Caucus leaders propose. Under rules passed by Congress in the past decade, caucuses may no longer be financed with money from the funds allocated for members’ individual offices–for instance, from funds set aside for postage. That change put many caucuses out of business.

Caucus Is Helping Rebuild Religion Coalition

On some hot-button issues such as reproductive choice, however, a caucus can still serve many goals, including educating members about how ethicists view their issues or making connections among constituencies.

The House Pro-Choice Caucus, for instance, has invited Marquette University theologian Daniel Maguire to brief members about the varying ways the Roman Catholic Church and other religions have viewed abortion over the centuries and today.

In addition, Slaughter said, “we are re-connecting the religious community to the pro-choice community. In the 1970s, they had been standing with us.”

After the Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion in the early 1970s, the religious-feminist coalition came unglued for a variety of reasons, not all of them involving abortion. The religious right, for instance, pursued traditional African American churches to join their “pro-family” campaign, which often carried with it assumptions that the African American leaders would join them in opposing reproductive rights as well as the “supremacy” of a man’s role in the family.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake has conducted surveys recently, however, which show that a large percentage of church members are pro-choice.

With that research in hand, Slaughter said, the House Pro-Choice Caucus has made overtures to religious groups to find common ground once again. That has resulted in a “phenomenal response,” Slaughter said, including from “conservative” Baptists, Jewish congregations, and pro-choice Catholics. At the Women’s Equality Summit reception in May, Slaughter shared the podium with a African American Baptist minister, the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president and chief executive of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

As Caucus Grows, It Becomes More Proactive

On occasion, the Caucus members have put forth their own initiatives. One current case is a proposal to require hospitals and clinics to offer emergency-contraception pills to women who have been raped. In addition, they have pushed for a five-year, $10 million program to educate doctors and nurses about this pill and how it differs from the RU-486 pill that anti-abortion activists oppose.

Slaughter and Morella are two of the most senior women in Congress and have played prominent roles in issues involving reproductive choice. But it wasn’t easy to keep their colleagues hitched. At one point, Slaughter told the Women’s Summit reception, membership was down to no more than eight stalwarts.

The Caucus today, with 141 members, is about 32 percent of the overall House membership, a major increase from last March when the four leaders took over and set out to strengthen their ranks.

That makes them the largest House caucus–but still a minority on pro-choice issues. Lobbyists place 215 House members in the anti-abortion camp and another 75 in the “mixed” category–not usually anti-abortion but not sure votes for the pro-choice side either.

In fact, the Caucus doesn’t have the muscle to block a current proposal to prohibit minors and their adult companions crossing state lines to obtain abortions.

Slaughter said that proposal, which was approved in late April by the House Judiciary Committee, would prohibit anyone other than a parent or guardian from taking a minor to a neighboring state for an abortion.

“That’s appalling–and it’s also probably unconstitutional,” she said.

The Pro-Choice Caucus members would not be able to block the measure from full House approval if the Republican leadership wants to push it. But Slaughter said they are assured that it will not pass muster in the Senate.

Slaughter says the big increase in pro-choice strength is cause for optimism. But she says there is much ground to be recouped–and she says activists have been negligent in lobbying their elected members. She rarely gets visits from groups or individual voters who speak up for reproductive rights, she says.

Peggy Simpson is a veteran reporter who covered the 1970s-1980s women’s political movement. She recently returned to Washington after a decade in Central-Eastern Europe, covering the economic-political transition after the fall of communism.

For more information:

Rep. Louise Slaughter:

Rep. Constance Morella:

Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice: