Clinton presses his stand for abortion rights Issue would influence his court choices

July 01, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Gov. Bill Clinton took his strongest stand on the abortion issue yesterday, saying his nominees to the Supreme Court and his running mate would have to support abortion rights.

Though he claimed he doesn't like "litmus" tests for judicial nominees, the Democratic presidential candidate warned it would take only "one more Clarence Thomas" to strike down a woman's constitutional right to end her pregnancy.

Justice Thomas, President Bush's most recent appointment to the court, joined three other justices Monday in urging that Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision making abortion a constitutional right, be overturned. In a 5-4 ruling, the court upheld the right to abortion but narrowed it to permit greater state regulation.

In his comments, Mr. Clinton underscored his interest in making abortion rights a campaign issue against Mr. Bush, who wants Roe vs. Wade struck down. Ross Perot, the unannounced independent candidate, favors abortion rights.

"I hope this will be a profound issue," Mr. Clinton said. Earlier in the day, at a rally sponsored by the National Abortion Rights Action League, he said he remembered the days when the illegal nature of abortions forced women who wanted them to risk their lives.

"I remember the uneven treatment, the disaster in dark alleys, the uncertainty, the fear, the hiding, the uneven application of the law," he said.

Mr. Clinton addressed the abortion issue throughout a campaign day in Washington that included talks to core Democratic constituencies: women, blacks, Jews and labor. His aides were cheered by a Washington Post-ABC poll showing him ahead of his opponents, with 33 percent to 31 percent for Mr. Perot and 28 percent for Mr. Bush. The Arkansas governor had been running third in most polls in recent weeks.

But the political dangers he still faces were highlighted in an appearance on NBC's "Today" show, when a caller brought up the tabloid accusation Mr. Clinton hoped had been put to rest in the winter primaries: whether he had an affair with sometime Arkansas singer Gennifer Flowers. Mr. Clinton again denied it.

Mr. Clinton used the show to announce his intention to choose a running mate who favors abortion rights -- a position that could eliminate Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, who is said to be under consideration. Mr. Wofford supported the Pennsylvania abortion law -- opposed by abortion-rights groups -- which was upheld Monday.

Clinton and Wofford aides sought to emphasize the senator's support for abortion rights, noting that he has voted against restrictions sought by anti-abortion groups and the Bush administration. But if Mr. Clinton were to choose Mr. Wofford, he would almost certainly ignite opposition by abortion-rights groups, according to a strategist in the national abortion-rights coalition.

The strategist, who asked not to be identified, noted that Mr. Wofford has not signed the Freedom of Choice Act, an abortion-rights measure supported by most of his Democratic Senate colleagues. Abortion-rights activists are "deeply concerned about Wofford," the strategist said.

Mr. Wofford's press secretary, David Stone, said the senator has "said consistently" he supports the basic premise of Roe that a woman has a right to have an abortion "before fetal viability." But the senator also believes that abortion should be subject to "reasonable regulation."

Though the court decision Monday was denounced by advocates on both extremes of the issue, Mr. Wofford believes it shows "we're actually moving onto common ground" on abortion, according to Mr. Stone. He said Mr. Wofford was studying the court decision closely and probably would make a statement soon.

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