Roe's Army Reloads; They've Been Dreading This Moment for Decades. How the Pro-Choice Movement Is Readying for Roberts-And Navigating a Critical Political Crossroads

Article excerpt

Byline: Debra Rosenberg

The day before George W. Bush tapped John Roberts for the Supreme Court, a group of abortion-rights activists gathered around the conference table at NARAL Pro-Choice America. Panicked by the departure of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor--the court's key swing vote on abortion--they pored over lists of potential replacements, sharing alarming facts about each one. "Most of us were against all of them," recalls NARAL president Nancy Keenan. The next night, as news about Roberts leaked out, NARAL issued a statement opposing him even before he appeared in the East Room. Now, two weeks into the fight, defeating the affable judge looks like no easy task. On a conference call with Keenan last Friday, one activist from Minnesota cut to the chase: "People are wondering, are we going to be able to stop this guy? Is there going to be a filibuster?" Keenan, a fly-fishing enthusiast, didn't answer directly. "We have waded into the water," she said. "We have cast the line."

Pro-choice activists like Keenan aren't shying away from the struggle--however uncertain their prospects. The Roberts fight is shaping up as a moment of truth for a movement that's struggled to find its footing in recent years. After losing the '04 election, some Democrats began pointing out that although the majority of voters say they're pro-choice--51 percent in a July CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll--the party wasn't connecting with them. Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Democratic think tank Third Way--run by the same strategists who moved the party to the center on the gun issue--is crafting new message and policy ideas to help Democrats appeal to Red State voters on abortion. And the pro-choice groups themselves have begun tinkering with their approach, even considering whether to abandon the framework of "choice" itself. "We've gotten a little far away from talking with people very much from the heart," admits Karen Pearl, interim president of Planned Parenthood. The Roberts hearings could give the movement a chance to publicly test the new strategy.

This is the battle pro-choicers have been dreading for years. They've long warned that a single retirement from the high court could be enough to topple Roe v. Wade . Though it will take the loss of at least one more pro-Roe justice to overrule the decision outright, pro-choicers want to pin down exactly where Roberts stands. Last week Democrats signaled that abortion--or at least the general topic of "privacy"--will be a major issue at Roberts's confirmation hearings, now set to begin Sept. 6. Though several pro-choice senators hinted that a failure to support Roe could be a deal breaker for Roberts, activists weren't sure whether enough lawmakers would stand firm. "The Democrats don't have a lot of starch in their spines," says former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt. "We're going to be pushing a big boulder up a hill."

The past dozen years have been a political roller coaster for the choice groups. First they grew complacent with a sympathetic Bill Clinton in the White House. Then they got bogged down opposing popular measures like parental-notification laws and bans on so-called partial-birth abortion. Technology provided more sophisticated images of a growing fetus. Meanwhile, the pro-life movement got an unwitting boost from Clinton, who decreed abortion should be "safe, legal and rare," says Emory University legal historian David Garrow. "Once the pro-choice movement sent the message that abortion was undesirable, we were on a slippery slope headed downhill."

Democrats recently began realizing they were caught in the slide. Democratic Party chair Howard Dean met with members of Democrats for Life last month. Later the same day he told the party's national finance board that he didn't want to change the Democrats' fundamental position, but he did want to "reframe" it. "He said he wanted to take 'abortion' out of the political lexicon," recalls former DNC head Steve Grossman, who attended the meeting. …