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Social Issues Continue to Deeply Divide Americans

Public opinion polls indicate that while a solid majority of Americans support President Bush's approach to the war on terrorism, they remain deeply divided on a range of social issues at home, including abortion.

Republican gains in the recent congressional elections have encouraged anti-abortion leaders and alarmed those who support abortion rights, causing a social divide to re-emerge in U.S. politics.

President Bush plunged back into the social policy area recently when he issued an executive order making it easier for religious charity groups to obtain government money to expand their programs aimed at helping the poor.

"And we want more and more faith-based charities to be partners in our efforts, our unyielding efforts, to change America one heart, one conscience, one soul at a time," the president said.

The idea is controversial because while supporters argue it will allow religious organizations to expand their programs for the needy, opponents fear that it could undermine the traditional separation between church and state.

The executive order fulfills a campaign pledge that was well received by Christian conservatives in the Republican Party, who remain among the president's most loyal supporters.

"He has been an awesome president," said the Reverend Jerry Falwell, nationally known for his conservative activism. "I would put George W. Bush in the same league with Ronald Reagan and his father. I can't think of any American I'd rather have at the helm right now leading me, leading my family and leading 280 million Americans in wartime than George W. Bush."

On the other end of the political spectrum, liberals are worried that after months of almost exclusive focus on national security and foreign policy, the Bush administration is now preparing to put renewed emphasis on social issues, especially abortion.

At the Supreme Court recently, activists on both sides of the abortion divide demonstrated by chanting and holding signs.

Among them was abortion rights supporter Terry O'Neill, a spokeswoman for the National Organization for Women. She says the recent Republican gains in Congress have liberal activist groups on alert.

"We are very concerned about it," she said. "We think that the extreme right wing is in control of the Republican Party, unfortunately, which puts the extreme right wing of the Republican Party in control of both houses of Congress and of the White House, and that is a matter of enormous concern."

A few meters away, a small group of anti-abortion protestors held signs of their own and occasionally tried to engage the abortion rights supporters in debate.

Edward Szymkoniak is with a group called the American Life League. He says anti-abortion groups are demanding that President Bush and Republicans in Congress make more of an effort to restrict abortions.

"You know, you got to have some hope," he said. "You've got to put some pressure on your elected officials and the president to act. If they don't act now, now that they have the majority [in Congress], I don't think it is realistic to believe that they will ever, ever act."

But Terry O'Neill of the National Organization for Women says liberal groups are also mobilizing support among Congressional Democrats to prevent any erosion of abortion rights.

"Women will not tolerate their rights being rolled back. We won't. We will fight back," she said. "We will do what we need to do in order to maintain our freedoms and our reproductive rights."

The 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion came on a vote of five to four. Although none of the nine justices on the high court have given any indication that they are considering retirement any time soon, both sides predict an intense political battle if and when President Bush gets an opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice.

Part of VOA's yearend series