ANALYSIS-Abortion exposes divisions among U.S. Democrats
* Abortion poses danger to Democratic Party in 2010
* Issue may scuttle healthcare overhaul
By Ed Stoddard
DALLAS, Nov 14 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's bid to overhaul America's healthcare system has exposed a split within his Democratic Party over abortion that threatens to undercut the party's gains in recent elections.
Democrats have traditionally supported a women's right to terminate a pregnancy, with the liberal wing of the party fighting doggedly for decades against repeated Republican efforts to limit the procedure.
But a rising chorus of moderates -- some of them elected in traditionally Republican districts during the Democratic sweeps of Congress in 2006 and 2008 -- are openly challenging the party's stand on the issue.
The rift came to a head this month as the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to vote on a bill to expand medical insurance coverage as part of a sweeping restructuring of the $2.5 trillion healthcare system.
Facing a revolt by moderates within the party, the Democratic leadership was forced to include a measure barring federal subsidies from health policies covering abortion to assure the bill's passage.
Abortion is legal in America, but federal funding for the procedure has long been barred.
A similar battle is brewing in the Senate, where Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid is struggling to find the 60 votes needed to pass the landmark legislation in the 100-seat upper chamber.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, called the House abortion amendment a political bombshell that has ripped holes in both parties and set the stage for the 2010 mid-term congressional elections.
"It is a vote, no matter what side you are on, that will help galvanize the base," of both parties, Duffy said.
HIGH STAKES DRAMA
The abortion issue was rekindled last summer as evangelical conservatives linked to the Republican Party drummed up opposition to Obama's healthcare plan, charging that it would lead to government funding of abortion.
With Republicans, who have strong support of evangelical Protestants, generally united in opposing abortion, it was moderates within the Democratic Party who most felt the heat as the debate intensified.
Democratic congressmen elected in districts carried by Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 were seen as particularly vulnerable and became the focal point of anti-abortion lobbying.
For some analysts, the Democrats have become a victim of their own success as they gained control of Congress in 2006 and expanded their majorities in 2008 in part by fielding anti-abortion candidates in Republican districts and states.
"The national party is paying the price right now because of all these conservative Democrats they brought to Congress in 2006 and 2008," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
The battle underscores a fundamental quandary facing the Democratic Party: how to push through the Obama agenda, including healthcare reform, without jeopardizing key blocs of moderate and socially conservative voters.
That tightrope is made more precarious by what appears to be a shift in America's attitude toward abortion. Polls by the Gallup and Pew organizations have pointed to declining support for abortion rights in America.
Wooing Catholics, who make up about 25 percent of the population, is vital for Democrats and key to Obama's chances of re-election in 2012. In nine of the last 10 presidential elections, the winner carried the Catholic vote.
Although the U.S. Catholic Church supports Obama's healthcare drive, it is dead set against abortion. Lobbying by Catholic bishops was seen as crucial to the inclusion of the anti-abortion amendment attached to the House healthcare bill.
"The Catholic bishops really want some kind of healthcare reform and so they cannot simply be dismissed as people trying to make trouble for it," said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
But the irony is that their moves may scuttle passage.
"Right now it (abortion) is the biggest immediate obstacle to getting a bill passed," Wilson said.
Abortion rights activists, however, are also lobbying Democrats in Congress in an attempt to stop what they see as a concerted effort to erode court protections of a women's right to have an abortion.
"This has really galvanized our movement and we have four million pro-choice members on our e-mail list," said Laurie Rubiner, vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood, a health-care provider that supports abortion rights.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao)
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