WASHINGTON - The sudden spasm of intense debate over abortion on Capitol Hill this week threatens not only to stall the passage of health care legislation, but also to shatter the delicate cease-fire that has governed the abortion issue during the Obama era.
After months of dodging high-profile confrontations over abortion, Democrats — including President Barack Obama — find themselves faced with a stark set of alternatives: Support a bill that imposes limits on access to abortion or demand one that might, however indirectly, fund the procedure with taxpayer money.
It's the kind of decision point the White House and Democratic leaders have consistently attempted to avoid. By playing down divisions over abortion and emphasizing shared goals — such as reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in the United States — members of the president's party have sought to blur the lines of one of the country's most furious and enduring debates.
"They're looking for an easy way out. And there is no easy way out when it comes to right or wrong or true or false," said former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, an abortion opponent who served as ambassador to the Vatican during the Clinton administration. "On some of these issues, there's just no compromise."
The House health care bill wasn't supposed to become a referendum on abortion rights. But Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan, reshaped the legislative landscape when he offered an amendment restricting the sale of insurance policies covering abortion through the proposed national health insurance exchange — or to women who receive health care subsidies from the federal government.
Stupak's proposal, which would also bar any public health insurance plan from covering abortion procedures, passed the House on Saturday over objections from a majority of Democratic lawmakers, who voted against the amendment.
Supporters of abortion rights were outraged — especially House Democratic women, many of whom view Stupak's legislation as a betrayal of a key Democratic commitment.
"What they attempt to do here is just ban coverage, totally ban coverage, and that is a different mindset than maintaining current law," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) "There's people that don't want to respect that reasonable approach."
As the debate over health care moves to the Senate, Democrats find themselves in the unaccustomed position of taking clear sides on an issue they've often dealt with through avoidance and rhetorical sleight of hand.
On this hottest of hot-button social issues, few Democrats have positioned themselves as cautiously as Obama. Though his campaign-trail critics warned he would be the "most pro-abortion president in history," Obama has long presented abortion not as an ideological hand grenade but as a social challenge that can be tackled in a measured, nonpartisan way.
"If you believe that life begins at conception and you are consistent in that belief, then I can't argue with you on that because that is a core issue of faith for you," Obama told an audience at Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in August 2008. "What I can do is say, are there ways that we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies so that we actually are reducing the sense that women are seeking out abortions?"
Since taking office, Obama has not backed off his support for abortion rights. Just days after his inauguration, Obama reversed the "Mexico City policy" banning federal funding to groups that discuss or provide abortions and withdrew restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. He nominated a lawyer to head his Office of Legal Counsel who once worked as legal director for the abortion-rights group NARAL and plucked a top political aide from the leadership of EMILY's List, the group that helps female candidates who support abortion rights.
When Obama nominated Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the White House tacitly signaled its confidence in her support for the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, with press secretary Robert Gibbs telling reporters Obama spoke with his nominee about the concept of "settled law" and "left very comfortable with her interpretation of the Constitution."
But if Obama's policy choices have been aligned with a liberal agenda on abortion, he has also dutifully minimized opportunities for conflict with opponents of abortion. Obama first revealed his method when he signed the executive order yanking the Mexico City policy on funding for groups that provide abortion-related services — in a closed-press ceremony that avoided drawing attention to the policy shift.
The president stuck with that conciliatory pose after a planned commencement speech at Notre Dame drew objections from anti-abortion Catholics opposed to Obama's policies. When it came time for his address, Obama gave a talk urging Americans to engage in civil debate on social issues "without reducing those with differing views to caricature."
Later, after the murder of an abortion provider in Kansas last May, Obama refrained from scoring points against abortion opponents, releasing an anodyne statement saying merely: "However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence."
And if Democrats were ultimately pleased with his choice of Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, they had to take the White House's word that she was a supporter of abortion rights: In her 17-year tenure on the federal bench, she didn't issue a single major ruling on the subject.
Activists on the right say Obama's carefully parsed positions haven't won him any converts — but even they concede the president has succeeded in averting potentially volatile confrontations.
"He wants to say things that he thinks we want to hear," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, who heads the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that seeks to elect female candidates who oppose abortion. "I'm not talking about the pro-life movement; I'm talking about the vast majority of Americans who don't want to spend their money on abortion."
Obama hasn't been alone in his ginger approach to abortion. Joining him have been Democratic members of Congress such as DeLauro and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who introduced legislation to broaden family planning and adoption services in order to reduce the need for abortions in the first place.
"It is a difficult issue. It's a sensitive issue. It's a very emotional issue," DeLauro said, insisting: "There certainly is common ground we have worked to achieve over a long period of time."
Given the sensitivity of the abortion debate, however, the Democrats' balancing act was always precarious.
So far, the president has responded to the Stupak amendment by urging lawmakers to take a step back toward the status quo, long governed by the Hyde amendment restricting federal funding of abortion, without adding any new burdens for seekers and providers of abortions.
"This is a health care bill, not an abortion bill," Obama told ABC News Monday. "We're not looking to change what is the principle that has been in place for a very long time, which is federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions."
But as the governing party heads for a painful set of decisions, conservatives, for their part, are looking forward to the Democrats' moment of choosing.
"You can't have it both ways. If you're subsidizing private insurance policies, then you are either paying for it with tax dollars or you're not," said Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition, adding that abortion "looks increasingly like it is a major cleavage running through the Democratic Party and that has potentially huge implications, not only for health care but for the 2010 election."