HOUSTON -- Republican supporters of abortion rights were totally stifled in their first attempt here yesterday to challenge the party platform's hard-line plank on the issue.
After an hour of sometimes emotional debate, a subcommittee voted17-3 to keep the language of the 1984 and 1988 platforms calling for a constitutional amendment that would forbid abortions except in cases in which the life of the mother is threatened.
The plank now goes to the full committee, where the outcome is expected to be little different -- thus putting the document squarely in line with President Bush's position.
The abortion rights forces were stymied from the outset by a parliamentary ploy. The subcommittee chair, Mary Potter Summa NorthCarolina, recognized two members who offered amendments to make minor word changes in the draft, thus foreclosing any further proposed amendments under committee rules limiting such changes to two. As a result, no substitute language ever was advanced.
The issue was raised by Bobbi Breske, a delegate from Delaware, who urged her colleagues to at least include an exclusion in cases of rape or incest.
She said Republicans in her state had told her they "were very seriously concerned that the platform does not in any way address the victims of crime."
Ms. Breske said the party should "at least show compassion" toward women who have been "horribly violated by a stranger or, worse yet, your uncle."
The party, she said, wants "to support an ideal, but the realities of life are sometimes ugly."
Two other women on the committee, Mary Wiese of South Dakota and Deborah Leighton of Massachusetts, also challenged the draft plank. Ms. Wiese warned that the extreme position could cost the Republican Party dearly at the polls Nov. 3 in defections by women "angry enough to say, 'I'm going to vote pro-choice this time.' " Ms. Leighton argued for adding language to the platform that would demonstrate the party's willingness to accommodate different views on the issue.
But Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, a leading opponent of abortion in the House, spoke for the overwhelming majority when he said the question comes down to "whether the product of rape or incest is not a human life" that deserves protection.
To allow such fetuses to be aborted, Mr. Hyde argued, would compound the crime "by exterminating the innocent second victim of the rape." And he dismissed suggestions that the position would cost Republicans in the elections. "You can't poll away somebody's natural rights," Mr. Hyde said.
The discussion became more emotional when Virginia Phillips, a delegate from Alaska, told the subcommittee that she had been obliged to have an abortion as a young woman because of a medical problem and that the procedure "wasn't a Sunday afternoon stroll" but instead a traumatic experience. "We should consider loving women enough to say it's wrong, that it is a human life," she said.
At another point, Lillian Coker, a delegate from Tennessee, evoked hisses from the abortion rights advocates in the audience when she spoke disparagingly of Mary Dent Crisp, a former vice chairwoman of the Republican National Committee now leading one of the abortion rights groups.
Later Ms. Summa, the subcommittee chair, said she is now 4 1/2 months into a pregnancy and very aware of "what is in me. It's not a rock; it's not a Coke bottle; it's a human life" and added that it was kicking her and pressing on her bladder at that very moment.
Before it was over, 13 members of the subcommittee had spoken against any change in the language, foreshadowing the overwhelming vote.
One of the abortion rights leaders, Ann Stone, said after the vote that she still hopes the issue will be raised in the full committee later this week. But there seemed little if any chance the dissenters will even get something as perfunctory as language in the preamble welcoming "diversity" of views within the party.
Phyllis Schlafly, a leader of the abortion rights opponents, said she remained adamantly opposed to anything that would be seen as a compromise. And Charles Black, the senior adviser to the Bush campaign overseeing the platform deliberations, said there were no negotiations under way that might produce such a compromise.
The whole exercise had a mock quality because the draft language had been produced by the Bush campaign and RNC staff. The subcommittee that dealt with the abortion issue didn't even recognize a reference in another section of the draft to "America 2000" as the name for President Bush's education program.
The draft also included a section potentially embarrassing to Mr. Bush's appeal to former supporters of Ross Perot.
It read: "We oppose the use of corporate power or individual wealth to intimidate employees through arbitrary and unjustified investigation of their personal lives." The language was deleted after Mr. Hyde called it a "pre-Perot pirouette" and added: "I don't think we need this now if we ever needed it."