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A new strategy in abortion debate As demonstrators take part in annual March for Life, Democrats seem to be turning toward the center

Tens of thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators, including several hundred from Buffalo, filled the streets of Washington on Monday -- even though the new Democratic Congress isn't giving them much new to protest.

The annual March for Life commemorated the 34th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. But unlike when Democratic President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, abortion adversaries aren't finding themselves confronting in-your-face challenges from the newly empowered.

On the contrary, Democrats appear to be inching to the center on the volatile abortion issue, pushing increased funding for contraception and family planning while steering clear of pushing any idea that might expand the availability of abortion.

"All women must be able to make their own choices about their reproductive health," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"At the same time, we must work for the day when abortions are truly rare," said Clinton, who is co-sponsoring a bill originally introduced by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, in 2004 that expands contraception programs. "That means preventing unwanted pregnancies and doing everything we can to ensure that all women have access to family planning, contraception and the medically accurate information they need and deserve."

Hearing language like that, abortion opponents roll their eyes and look back to the 2004 presidential election, where "values voters" flocked to Republican President Bush.

"I think they're being very careful because they know they have a presidential election coming up in 2008," said Teresa Tomeo, host of Catholic Connection, a national radio program.

President Clinton wasn't nearly so careful in 1993. On the same day that abortion protesters gathered to mourn the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion, Clinton signed five executive orders that, in effect, reversed a long-standing Republican policy of using the power of the presidency to limit abortion rights.

Suddenly gone was the so-called "gag rule" that restricted abortion counseling at federally funded clinics, along with the ban on medical research using tissue from aborted fetuses. Clinton also reversed bans on abortions at military facilities and aid to foreign family planning organizations and allowed abortions at overseas U.S. military facilities.

"That louse struck down 14 years of pro-life work in one day," said Stasia Zoladz Vogel, president of the Buffalo Regional Right-to-Life Committee, who attended Monday's march.

In contrast this year, Democratic congressional leaders have not yet pushed any major legislation aimed at expanding abortion rights.

Instead, on the first day of the new Congress, Slaughter and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, reintroduced their Prevention First Act, which would increase funding for federal family planning programs and push "emergency contraception" -- the so-called "morning-after" pill. Other Democrats have introduced another similar bill.

"By emphasizing prevention first, my bill will help protect women's reproductive health, reduce unintended pregnancies and the number of abortions and decrease the spread of sexually transmitted diseases," Slaughter said.

Reid, an abortion opponent, agreed.

"There are few more divisive issues in America today than abortion, but there is an opportunity to find common ground if we are willing to join together and seize it," Reid said.

Rachel Laser, director of the Culture Project at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group, said there is an obvious reason for the party to be pushing a less-confrontational approach on abortion. They want to appeal to "abortion grays": the two-thirds of voters who favor neither abortion on demand nor making abortion totally illegal.

"It is a markedly different direction for Democrats to be talking primarily about reducing the number of abortions," Laser said. "Democrats are waking up to the fact that they need to reach abortion grays to win elections."

Of course, middle ground is hard to find on the abortion issue, partly because the Catholic Church which plays a huge role in the anti-abortion movement opposes contraception as well.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, who led a Mass for abortion opponents before the march, said the acceptance of contraception leads to a cheapening of life that thereby encourages abortion.

"A culture that does not support a chance at life becomes a culture of death," he said.

As usual, Bush addressed the rally that kicked off the march to the Supreme Court.

"We've all got to remember that a true culture of life cannot be built by changing laws alone," Bush said via telephone from Camp David. "We've all got to work hard to change hearts."

Protesters didn't seem to have their minds on the new Democratic strategy on the abortion issue. Instead, they said they would keep coming to the annual march as long as Roe v. Wade stands, as long as abortion remains a constitutional right.

"We are Catholics who really choose to focus on the right to life," said Dante Tates, a teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md. "That right is first and foremost."

Dawn Iacono of Williamsville, director of pro-life activities at the Diocese of Buffalo, agreed.

"Many of us have a standing reservation to be in Washington, D.C., on January 22," she said.

News Washington bureau assistant Andrew Vanacore contributed to this report.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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