Election results unclear on abortion--but elections are where issue may be settled


November 11, 1990|By LYLE DENNISTON

Perhaps the most difficult thing to figure out about this year's election results is the message the voters were sending to the Supreme Court about how the politicians and the pressure groups would handle the abortion issue if it were left entirely or mostly to them to manage.

That is a question of fundamental importance, because the Supreme Court appears to be thinking seriously -- for the first time in its history -- of letting a matter that had been governed almost exclusively by the Constitution be settled in the political arena.

In almost two full centuries of history, the court has never withdrawn constitutional protection for a right it had established. For the past two years, at the least, that has remained at least a possibility with the constitutional right to abortion, which the court itself recognized in its 1973 ruling in Roe vs. Wade.

An outright withdrawal like that, of course, would mean that what once had been a "right" would not be that anymore, and instead would be something that was subject to debate and resolution outside the courts: in Congress, and in the myriad legislative bodies of state, county and city government.

What went on last Tuesday, as voters expressed some sentiment on abortion as a campaign issue, was a kind of training opportunity for the political system, should the Supreme Court hand it the option of taking over that question.

Tuesday's election, and the months-long campaign that led up to it, was the closest thing America has ever had to a national referendum on abortion rights. One needs only to scan any of those lists put out by the pressure groups to see just how many individual races seemed to be turning on that question.

By one calculation (by the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group), there were 1,966 contests for seats in state legislative races in which abortion was an issue dividing the candidates -- almost a spectacular demonstration of the pervasiveness of the issue in this year's politics.

By another calculation (by Voters for Choice, an abortion-rights group), there were at least 12 U.S. Senate races and 67 U.S. House of Representatives contests in which the issue parted the candidates in a significant way.

But, beyond those calculations, there is another list to consult: There were no fewer than three statewide ballot questions posing the abortion issue by the most fundamental political method available -- that is, as a direct, explicit test of voters' judgments on the subject.

It is small wonder, then, that it will take days and days, and perhaps more than that, for anyone to draw dependable (or even sensible) conclusions about what it all means. With genuine sincerity (and plausibility), both abortion-rights and anti-abortion forces could and did claim victories -- sometimes on the very same race.

Take one example: In Pennsylvania, the state legislator who had sponsored a very restrictive bill against abortion (a bill ultimately passed and now under review in the courts) was targeted for defeat by the National Abortion Rights Action League. Indeed, that legislator, Republican Steven F. Freind, was one of what came to be called "the NARAL Nine" -- the ones who, in all the country, that group had most wanted out of office.

Mr. Freind won his seat, by only 648 votes out of more than 25,000 cast by the voters of the 116th District. NARAL claimed a victory of sorts because of the narrowness of the victory, and the National Right to Life Committee claimed an absolute victory because he won. Both seemed to be fair assessments. And that was not an isolated phenomenon.

What one may tentatively suggest about such things is that, if abortion is in fact handed back to the political system for its determination, the results will vary -- at least state by state, and perhaps even local jurisdiction by local jurisdiction.

If that is all that ultimately can be said about Tuesday and abortion, that just might be exactly the message that the current Supreme Court majority was waiting to hear. It is a matter of conservative faith, no doubt shared by at least some among the present majority of justices, that pluralism is a virtue in matters as hotly disputed as abortion is, and that some experimentation in the political system on such a subject is entirely in order.

What Tuesday may also say, in a more definitive way after the final results have been pored over more carefully and analytically, is that the results of political experimentation might be entirely haphazard, possibly even capricious, and that therefore there could be no way for pregnant women, their families and their doctors to know just what the legal options are going to be.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.