Schlafly, Weddington spar on abortion Both see vulnerability of Roe vs. Wade decision

December 06, 1991|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

The debaters -- two women who have battled for years and have absolutely no love for each other, either personally or politically -- were more polite than the audience.

Above the grumblings, mumblings, whoops and misplaced laughter of a small crowd at the University of Baltimore, Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative anti-feminist vehemently opposed to abortion, squared off against Sara Weddington, the lawyer who argued the landmark Roe vs. Wade abortion case before the Supreme Court 18 years ago.

Yet even Mrs. Schlafly and Ms. Weddington conceded that the crowd last night at the University of Baltimore was fairly well behaved, compared to most audiences they have encountered in a series of debates.

"Tonight? It was quite civilized tonight," said Mrs. Schlafly, who like her debate counterpart has been the recipient of volumes of verbal abuse over the years.

The issue was abortion, a subject as heated as they come. And it is doubtful that anyone who came in believing one thing about it last night walked out believing something else.

What seemed clear from both sides, however, was that Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that gave women a constitutional right to abortion, is on the verge of being overturned.

Ms. Weddington told the audience of about 200 students and supporters of both sides of the abortion issue that she felt like she was "watching the sands of time run out on Roe vs. Wade."

"I feel like a modern day Patrick Henry," she said, warning that within two years, a woman's right to an abortion would be made on a state-by-state basis.

Ms. Weddington urged those who attended the debate to become involved in the pro-choice movement, especially in Maryland where voters will decide next November whether the state's new law on abortion should take effect.

Maryland's law would allow an abortion until a fetus might be able to survive outside the womb. Later in pregnancy, it would be allowed only to protect a woman's life or health, or if the fetus was known to be deformed.

Mrs. Schlafly, who refers to abortion as "killing babies," said she cannot wait for Roe vs. Wade -- which she calls "the worst decision ever handed down by the Supreme Court" -- to be overturned. "It is the job of government to respect and defend the inalienable right to life," she said.

Each side had its vocal supporters.

"I was amazed that Phyllis Schlafly could debate this issue for so long and display such abysmal ignorance of our legal system," said Dennis G. Olver, a 32-year-old law student.

"It's not just a disregard for the legal system, but her disregard of the facts, simple facts," chimed in his wife, Lexa N. Olver, a 26-year-old secretary. "The issue really is pro-choice vs. the criminalization of abortion."

But Shelley M. Gemza, a 22-year-old paralegal in Baltimore, said she did not believe Ms. Weddington and other pro-choice activists answer the question of when a fetus becomes a human being. "They're looking at the woman and ignoring the child," Ms. Gemza said.

Mrs. Schlafly, in describing her relationship with Ms. Weddington, seemed to sum up how both sides viewed each other: "It's a perfect debate. We don't agree on anything."

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