Justices anticipated public, may have helped energize campaign THE ABORTION DECISION

June 30, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,JEF DAUBER/STAFF GRAPHICSWashington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- "The Supreme Court," according to Finley Peter Dunne's fictional Mr. Dooley, "follows the election returns." In the case of the abortion decision, the court seems to have reflected the public opinion polls four months before the presidential election.

The result is anger at both extremes of opinion on abortion rights -- and the prospect the issue will become a significant, perhaps even a determinative, factor in the campaign for the presidency.

At the very least, the decision will energize the abortion rights activists enough to give the issue a prominence President Bush and his strategists would like to avoid because they fear Mr. Bush's adamant opposition will cost him heavily among Republican and independent women.

In itself, the fact that the court split 5-4 makes it clear that whoever next occupies the White House gains the power to change that balance with the next vacancy. That possibility was never driven home in the 1988 campaign because the abortion issue was largely seen as academic until the Supreme Court approved state restrictions for the first time in the Webster decision three years ago.

The opportunity to swing the court could come sooner rather than later, as Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the Roe decision 19 years ago, noted in his opinion: "I am 83 years old. I cannot remain on the court forever, and when I do step down, the confirmation process of my successor well may focus on the issue before us today."

The decision mirrored the ambivalence among voters. The majority agreed with 60 to 65 percent of the electorate in refusing to overturn Roe vs. Wade and with even greater majorities -- 75 to 80 percent or higher -- in being willing to accept some restrictions on abortion. By refusing to overturn Roe outright, the court refused to offer the abortion-rights activists the kind of clear provocation they were seeking. But those involved in the movement were convinced the Pennsylvania restrictions would be enough of a goad to energize their supporters.

"It's the ultimate politicization of the court," said John Deardourff, a Republican consultant who favors abortion rights. "They have avoided the worst that could happen to Bush politically . . . but it's not going to stop pro-choice from going on the warpath."

The hazard to the president -- who accepts abortion only in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother -- was obvious in the quick response of his rivals for the presidency in underlining their own support for abortion rights.

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, two weeks away from becoming the official Democratic nominee, restated his support for abortion rights and warned that they are "hanging by a thread" -- meaning a single vote on the court. Independent candidate Ross Perot issued a statement saying the decision "should be a woman's choice."

Political professionals were agreed that the decision could cost Mr. Bush support, but not on how many defectors there might be and where they would be inclined to go. Opinion polls have shown some Republican and independent women who live in suburbs moving away from the president on the abortion issue and toward Mr. Perot or Mr. Clinton.

Some Republican leaders say Mr. Perot has been a safe "hiding place" for Republican women who want to abandon the president but are reluctant to support a Democrat. Mr. Clinton, nonetheless, has been the prime beneficiary of the gender gap among women this year -- perhaps because of a feeling among women that Mr. Perot holds old-fashioned attitudes reflected in such things as the squad of middle-aged women who surround him at Dallas events wearing red T-shirts identifying themselves as "The Perot Girls."

The increased prominence of the abortion issue also may raise problems for Republicans at their convention in Houston in August.

The White House and party leaders had decided they would not permit abortion rights supporters to reach the convention floor with their challenge to the party platform condemning abortion. And they still may have the control of the convention to achieve that, but perhaps not without paying a political price by drawing fresh attention to Mr. Bush's extreme position.

However it affects the presidential campaign directly, the Pennsylvania decision is valuable fodder for female candidates in what may finally be "the year of the woman" in American politics. "This is the thing that helps to unleash that," said Peter Hart, a Democratic poll taker.

And the fact that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was one of those who voted to overrule Roe gives new ammunition to candidates, mostly Democratic women, running full tilt against the domination of the Senate by middle-aged men such as those on the Judiciary Committee who voted to confirm Thomas.

The principal lesson in the 5-4 decision yesterday is that one vote matters.

ABORTION AND THE RACE FOR THE PRESIDENCY

Here, in summary, are the views of each presidential candidate on the abortion controversy:

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