Candidates discard 'labels' to survive abortion issue

November 03, 1990|By Sandy Banisky

Defining a candidate's position on abortion used to be so easy -- a matter of "pro-life" or "pro-choice." But in this political year, some candidates are staking out a new middle ground, a place for politicians who say their opinions are too complex for labels.

Candidates who a few years ago would have categorized themselves as "anti-abortion" or "pro-life" now say they'd prefer not to be described with the same words used for staunch opponents of abortion.

"I don't think anyone wins when you begin using labels, because it encourages single-issue voting," said Christopher McCabe, the Republican Senate candidate in District 14, Howard and Montgomery counties. "Smart voters don't need labels."

But abortion-rights groups, whose aggressive campaigning helped turn out four anti-abortion senators in the September primary, suspect that some candidates have devised the new political definitions in an effort to distract voters and to avoid plainly stating an opinion.

"Forgive my cynicism," said Karyn Strickler, head of the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "But I think there's a little more to it" than an aversion to labels.

Ms. Strickler said some politicians who have never before confronted the debate over abortion "are genuinely evolving" and trying to find a position they're comfortable with -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer, for example.

But other candidates are just trying to avoid the issue, Ms. Strickler said.

"This has been a game of 'confuse the voters,' " she said. "It's just political opportunism."

Steven Rivelis, head of Choice PAC, which raises funds for abortion-rights candidates, said candidates who avoid calling themselves anti-abortion are "trying to take a position and wanting to have voters

think they're pro-choice, because they've seen the political wind and know which way it's blowing.

"It's faulty advertising," he said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Strickler said, candidates who favor legal abortion "are trying to out-pro-choice each other. They're saying, 'I believe more strongly than the other guy does.' "

Abortion-rights advocates want every candidate's position on the issue to be very clear. In the next General Assembly session, the supporters of abortion rights will try to pass a bill that would protect the right to abortion even if the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn its Roe vs. Wade decision, which made abortion legal.

But some candidates insist that their views on the issue don't fit neatly into any category.

Mr. McCabe describes himself as supporting "a woman's right to choose abortion if she's a victim of rape, incest, or if her life is in danger." To put a label on that stance, he said, "doesn't let people understand the complexities of the issue."

In nearby District 13, Howard and Prince George's counties, Republican House candidate Martin Madden says he's been challenged by opponents because he won't paste a label on his abortion position.

He said he would allow abortions in cases of rape and incest and if the woman's health was in danger. "It's not a simple yes or no answer."

"I would say somebody who would want to put a simple label on it is the one who is trying to duck the issue," Mr. Madden added.

Delegate Michael Gisriel, D-Baltimore County, says abortion is "not my issue. I've tried to focus my campaign on taxes, restraining government spending and effectiveness in Annapolis. And still people say to me, 'Are you pro-choice or pro-life?' I think labels do more to obscure than to illuminate."

Mr. Gisriel says he is personally opposed to abortion but favors a woman's right to choose. He said he believes the issue will not be settled until Marylanders vote on a bill at referendum. When voters press him for his position, "I try not to get into specifics," Mr. Gisriel said.

In Montgomery County's District 15, Republican Delegate Jean W. Roesser is running against a slate of abortion-rights Democrats who charge that she opposes abortion. But the delegate, who used to define herself as "pro-life," says she decided more than a year ago that she is "pro-choice in early pregnancy."

Michael W. Burns, head of the Maryland Right to Life Political Action Committee, agrees that many candidates are embracing at least some abortion-rights slogans in their effort to win election.

But he adds that when the legislators confront an abortion bill in the General Assembly, "a lot of these people who are running these pro-choice campaigns may end up voting for things on my side" -- such as a bill to require that a parent be informed before a girl has an abortion.

"You'll see more people who ran this time as pro-choice doing some strange things" when the abortion issue comes to the floor of the legislature, Mr. Burns said. "They'll switch. They'll hop. They'll bop. They'll grow in office."

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