By Ed Stoddard
DALLAS, Nov 23 (Reuters) - Abortion rights activists, an important component of the Democratic Party’s base, expect to advance their agenda under U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, signaling fresh battles over the highly charged issue.
Changes could take place in areas from judicial appointments to overseas aid. Obama strongly supports abortion rights, in stark contrast to President George W. Bush, a social conservative who often talked of a "culture of life" -- code for opposition to abortion.
With retirements looming on the U.S. Supreme Court, family planning activists have indicated they want Obama to appoint justices who will protect abortion rights.
The nine-member court is almost evenly divided between conservatives and liberals, and an Obama presidency will likely thwart the hopes of social conservatives for a bench that would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which gave women a basic constitutional right to an abortion.
On the policy front, activists and analysts say an early skirmish could come over federal funding for nongovernmental organizations that offer abortion operations or counseling in family planning services abroad.
Such funding was first banned in the 1980s under Republican President Ronald Reagan. Democratic President Bill Clinton rescinded the order in 1993 but Bush reinstated it in 2001, setting strict limits on the more than $400 million that the United States spends on overseas family planning assistance each year.
Critics call it the "global gag rule" and the partisan tit-for-tat -- Democratic politicians tend to woo abortion rights advocates and Republicans generally appeal to opponents -- is expected to continue when Obama assumes office in January.
"I think that rescinding this will be one of the first executive orders that he issues," said Michael Lindsay, a political sociologist at Rice University in Houston. There is great political pressure on Obama to act quickly on it given the expectations from his party’s base, Lindsay added.
Critics say the policy restricts funds to clinics offering family planning services in developing countries, which reduces access to such services and thus increases the number of unwanted pregnancies.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards told Reuters in interviews that rolling back the rule was among their top political priorities.
Abortion rights opponents, many of whom on religious grounds regard the procedure as murder, see any move on that front as the next shot in the abortion wars.
"To reintroduce funding for it internationally is very offensive because there are even people who describe themselves as pro-choice, but don’t want to be involved in public funding for it," said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life Action, which opposes abortion rights.
BACK ON THE RADAR
Divisive social issues took a back seat to the sinking economy and financial crisis during the campaign for the Nov. 4 presidential election.
While Democratic Party activists expect action to entrench abortion rights, the Republican Party’s conservative Christian base is positioning itself for a new era with its flag bearers out of power in both the White House and Congress.
The Democratic activists also hope to see policy changes to improve access to contraception and other issues related to women’s reproductive rights and health. Obama has said he wants to reduce the number of abortions by measures including expanding access to contraception.
"We have to reverse so much of the bad policy under Bush ... I think it’s a new day for privacy and freedom in this country," said Keenan of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Planned Parenthood’s Richards said: "Making more family planning affordable right off the bat ... and moving away from abstinence-only education. Those are two areas where we are hoping for significant change."
Programs that teach abstinence as the only approach to sex education are favored by conservative Christians and have received heavy federal funding under Bush.
Another looming battle will involve the Freedom of Choice Act, or FOCA, which would further entrench a woman’s right to an abortion. It is seen as codifying Roe v. Wade.
It has never moved beyond the committee stage and is not seen as being at the top of the policy agenda next year.
But Obama has pledged to sign it into law, and the Democratic-led Congress might pass it.
Keenan said NARAL estimated that in the House of Representatives there were "185 fully pro-choice votes ... 204 anti-choice votes and 46 mixed." She added that the Senate was also seen to be still sharply divided on the issue.
"There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before we even get around to considering a FOCA vote," Keenan said.
FOCA has been like a red flag to social conservatives who say it will sweep aside most restrictions on abortion rights, such as parental notification laws and the Partial-Birth Abortion Act that bans a certain late-term procedure.
Americans United for Life Action said that as of Friday, it had more than 230,000 signatures on an anti-FOCA petition on its website fightfoca.com --- virtually all since the election. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)