Abortion and Politics: Issue's Power Is Limited

July 05, 1992|By SANDY BANISKY

From Washington, the Supreme Court spoke last week on the issue of abortion. And in Maryland, activists on both sides of the debate issued calls to the political barricades.

Over the summer, they predicted, Marylanders will join the political battle. And on Nov. 3, they pledged, Maryland voters will crowd the polls to decide whether abortion should remain widely available.

But will they? Does the abortion issue move voters to action?

Usually not, according to political analysts.

The economy, jobs, crime, health care -- voters tend to use those issues to define their political positions.

Not abortion. Except for a minority of dedicated activists, pollsters say, abortion just isn't an issue that brings people into the voting booth.

"The majority of voters do not seem to want to get terribly involved in the issue," said Herbert C. Smith, a senior research associate at the University of Baltimore's William Donald Schaefer Center for Public Policy.

"The research to date indicates there is not much of an abortion vote, either pro or con," said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey, a large annual survey of opinion on a variety of subjects, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

So the issue itself doesn't propel most people to the polls. And for those who do vote based on the issue, the two sides tend to come almost equally from each camp.

"If you look at why people go to the polls, abortion is not a deciding factor for many voters," Tom Smith added. "And in the races in which it is a motivating factor, the pro-choice and pro-life side cancel each other out."

That's not particularly good news for groups campaigning in Maryland, where a new law that would keep most abortions here legal goes before the voters in November.

The campaigns have got to mobilize voters. And as the Supreme Court spoke last week, abortion opponents and abortion-rights backers each bravely announced that the court ruling could only help their respective cause.

In a ruling that had been awaited tensely by abortion activists on both sides, the Supreme Court affirmed most provisions of a Pennsylvania law that keeps the procedure legal but imposes some limits. A woman now must wait 24 hours after consulting a doctor before having an abortion in Pennsylvania and must be offered literature on fetal development before she makes her decision. A teen-ager must have the consent of one parent or of a judge.

The 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which asserted a constitutional protection for the right to abortion, still stands. But now states may pass some restrictions.

"The Supreme Court followed the public opinion polls: [permitting] abortion with conditions," Herbert Smith said. That decision "doesn't please either side, but that's the reality of opinion in the United States."

Celinda Lake, of the Washington firm Greenberg-Lake, agrees that abortion "tends to mobilize the single-issue voters." But she said the political momentum is changing as the public realizes that the federal government and the courts no longer are the focus of the debate.

"Voters are moving home to deal with this issue," said Ms. Lake, whose firm has done polling for abortion- rights groups. "They are increasingly unlikely to feel there would be a change nationally, so they see they'd better deal with this at home." Abortion, therefore, is increasingly becoming an issue in state campaigns.

So it would appear in the Maryland race for U. S. Senate.

Democratic incumbent Barbara A. Mikulski has long been a forthright supporter of abortion rights. An aide this week said that the senator will campaign on her record and a variety of issues -- focusing on the economy, and health care as well as abortion.

Any voters who go to the polls to vote for the abortion law would likely vote for Ms. Mikulski as well -- "a cross-fertilization," the Mikulski aide said.

Her challenger, Republican Alan Keyes, held a press conference with Maryland Right to Life on the day of the Supreme Court announcement last week. But that was not meant to define his campaign, a Keyes spokesman said last week.

"Abortion is going to be one of many important issues facing Marylanders this fall," Sean Paige said. "We don't think it's going to be a defining issue. But we don't think Marylanders are going to sit back and let this election be hijacked by a pressure group or abortion-unlimited extremists."

To focus voter attention, Ms. Lake said, both sides in the referendum campaign must "increase the sense of threat and urgency" that surrounds the issue.

Tom Smith says that though the Supreme Court seemed to straddle the issue, abortion-rights groups quickly grabbed the ruling and used it to their rhetorical advantage.

"There's reason to believe this would be more helpful to the pro-choice camp," he explained. "They seem to be more agitated by it, while pro-life seems to say, 'We're disappointed but we're glad we've taken one step forward.'

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