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D.C. marchers see new hope of curbing abortion ; Buffalo presence felt as GOP vows to use power in House

A massive crowd of abortion opponents, including several hundred from Buffalo, marched to the Supreme Court on Monday amid newfound hope that increasing Republican power in Congress will mean new limits on abortion.

That's just what the new GOP leadership of the House is promising -- although abortion rights advocates hope the anti-abortion legislative agenda that Republicans outlined last week will stall in the Senate.

But Monday's "March for Life," marking the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, was nothing if not a sign of strength for abortion opponents.

Several GOP lawmakers spoke to thousands of people wrapped in coats and caps beneath frigid blue skies, and each politician offered a different iteration of the same message.

"We stand with you for life," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told the marchers. "Thanks to your support last November, there's a new majority in town."

In the House, it's a strongly anti-abortion majority. Of the 87 new members elected last fall, 80 are pro-life, said Kathleen M. Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, which brought 350 people to the March for Life in a bus caravan, said in an interview that November's elections meant that Democrats who favor abortion rights no longer control both houses of Congress along with the White House. "That could work to our advantage," he said.

It already appears to have done just that.

Activists on both sides of the issue expect the House to pass strong anti-abortion legislation that never would have seen the light of day under Democratic control.

One bill would disqualify family-planning clinics from receiving federal funds if they perform abortions.

Another bill would revive the so-called Stupak amendment, a provision dropped at the last minute from last year's health care reform bill. That provision would bar the federal government from spending any money on abortion -- something President Obama has vowed by executive order not to allow.

Kmiec said that legislation is important because executive orders can be reversed much more easily than legislation.

And a third piece of legislation would not only bar federal funding for abortion, but would impose a tax on insurance companies that cover abortion in their policies, which most do -- even if those policies are paid for by individuals rather than public funds.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., termed his legislation "a governmentwide prohibition on taxpayer subsidization for abortion and conscience protections for health care personnel and institutions." And he told the crowd at the rally: "We need your help to get this passed."

Abortion rights activists are steeling for a fight over Smith's bill, though.

"This legislation is a stark departure from the status quo and not only infringes on the rights of women to choose, but taxes them for their choices," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, co-chairwoman of the House Pro-Choice Caucus. "It is a massive intrusion on a woman's right to choose."

Slaughter and her allies are counting on the Senate, still controlled by Democrats, to stop Smith's bill and the other anti-abortion measures.

"We have every confidence that our friends in the Senate will not allow this to happen," said Karen J. Nelson, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western New York.

Even if such legislation were to win congressional approval, it likely would be vetoed by Obama, who released a statement Monday reiterating his support for abortion rights.

"Today marks the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that protects women's health and reproductive freedom, and affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters," Obama said. "I am committed to protecting this constitutional right."

Knowing that their near-term legislative victories may only be partial, those who traveled here from Buffalo on Monday vowed to keep fighting -- and to keep coming to the nation's capital to march -- no matter what. "We're here as a sign to Congress and the president and to all lawmakers that we will never stop being one voice for the voiceless until all life is protected from the evil of abortion," Kmiec said at a Mass preceding the march.

Valerie Pawlak of Dunkirk, who was attending her 10th March for Life, agreed. "We're never going to give up" the fight to end abortion, she said. "And we encourage the young people to never give up."

The huge crowd of marchers appeared to be younger than in years past, and the signs they carried appeared less graphic. Photos of aborted fetuses were rare, replaced by the occasional sonogram picture and slogans such as "A person's a person no matter how small."

Activists on both sides acknowledged that the legislative battles over abortion could be a preview of things to come.

If Republicans win the Senate and the presidency next year, they said, such tough anti-abortion legislation could stand a real chance of passage.

"Things could certainly get worse," said Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL Pro-Choice America.

But when looking at the political situation, those who attended the March for Life had a much different outlook.

Debra Sadowski of Cheektowaga said, "I feel very hopeful."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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