Abortion Debate in America Reignited

WASHINGTON - It's been 38 years since Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal. Passions over this issue haven't faded with time. This week, hundreds of thousands of abortion rights opponents protested on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. While on Capitol Hill, House Republicans are pushing for new limits on abortion.

A similar movement has already gained support in a lot of state capitals. CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric puts abortion restrictions "In Focus."

Dr. Kermit Gosnell is a west Philadelphia doctor who was never trained as an ob-gyn," CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano said. "But in fact, prosecutors say he carried out illegal late-term abortions."

Gosnell has been charged with killing seven babies after they were born alive and for the murder of one woman. Remains from the procedures were in trash bags around his clinic.

"There were fetal remains in the same exact refrigerator that the employees had their lunch in that day," the prosecutor said.

Criminal abuse like this is extremely rare, but that is not stopping both sides in the abortion debate from using the case to re-energize supporters.

CBS News In Focus, Complete Coverage

"On the one hand you have abortion rights advocates who say if you clamp down on abortion rights even further you will have more doctors preying on women because they have no other options out there," Quijano said. "On the other side of the debate you have anti-abortion advocates who say this is precisely why you need to limit abortions to prevent people like Dr. Gosnell from operating."

The issue of abortion had taken a back seat in recent years - overshadowed by the economy and war. But aggressive state action to limit abortion and new leadership in Congress - like House Speaker John Boehner -- have pushed abortion back in the public debate.

"A ban on tax-payer funding for abortions is the will of the people, and it ought be the will of the land," Boehner said.

House Resolution 3

"It's one of our highest legislative priorities, and as such, I've directed that it receive the designation of HR3," Boehner said.

Read the Text of H.R. 3

"Republicans are back in power - the House at least -- after a walk in the desert," CBS News Congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes said. "They have certain constituencies they need to satisfy. One of those constituencies is the conservative right-wing of the party for whom abortion is a very important issue all of the time."

"Now with the new Congress we are no longer playing defense like we were in the last two years," said Susan Muskett of the National Right to Life Committee. "We can now play offense."

Conservatives in Congress first went on the offensive during debate over health care when they tried to keep any money from expanded insurance coverage from being used to pay for abortions. Opponents said existing law in the form of the Hyde Amendment already prohibited that. But that's not keeping abortion foes from trying again.

"When Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Smith introduced H.R.3 last week -the reaction from everyone on Capitol Hill was 'but this was supposed to be a job, agenda, right?'" CBS News Capitol Hill producer Jill Jackson said.

Views on Abortion Show Little Change

Although 40 percent of Americans favor limits on abortion, fewer than 1 percent consider the issue a priority. The abortion rate in the U.S has dropped since 1980 from nearly 30 per 1000 women of child bearing age -- to less than 20.

Overview of Abortion Rates in the U.S.

Anti-abortion activists view H.R.3 as a chance for a victory on a national stage in a battle that's clearly escalated beyond Washington since the November elections.

States, Rights and Ultrasounds

"I think that if you are looking at abortion as a political issue -- the real action is going to be at the state level," said CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

"In state after state, Democratic governors were replaced by Republican governors," Greenfield said. "Most, if not all, favor far more restrictions on abortion."

29 states are now led by governors or legislatures solidly opposed to Roe v. Wade - the 1973 Supreme Court decision that protected the right to an abortion.

Read Roe V. Wade Decision

"I think you are going to see much more energy on the part of those who oppose abortions or favor restrictions," Greenfield said.

Last year 16 states enacted new restrictions on abortion. Nebraska is joining other states that ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Oklahoma wants to require doctors to show a woman the ultrasound of her fetus prior to an abortion.

25 States with Most Abortions

"As more and more of these states enact laws that basically prohibit women from accessing abortion care, you are seeing in essence that the care is not available to them," NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan said. "And they often times have to go to another state."

Third Rail

"The Supreme Court has made it very clear that it is not going to overturn Roe V. Wade," CBS News chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford said. "So what that means is that you are seeing efforts in the states to push the envelope, to see how far they can take it short of restricting abortion outright."

But in Congress, Republican leaders say they have no plans to go further than H.R.3 - at least for now.

"A Congressional aide told me it doesn't matter if the Senate passes what the House passes - that the Republicans go on the record showing the American people what they stand for," Jackson said.

"This is how sensitive an issue this on Capitol Hill. Randy Neugebauer, a Republican from Texas, was so angry last year that another anti-abortion rights member - Bart Stupak of Michigan - had made a small compromise with the White House on abortion rights in the healthcare bill. - that he actually shouted the words "baby killer" on the House floor," Cordes said.

"This is a huge breech of decorum," Cordes added, "and it shows just how tempers flare when it comes to abortion. It's really one of those third rails of politics."

The House will debate H.R.3 in the weeks ahead. If it passes, Democrats in the Senate are expected to try to table the legislation indefinitely.