Abortion foes trying a new tactic to sway voters Anti-abortion group Vote kNOw plans to focus on a women's rights theme

September 10, 1992|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

It used to be, in the abortion debate, that abortion opponents centered their argument on the rights of the unborn.

But in Maryland this year, anti-abortion campaigners have chosen a theme the other side thought it owned: the rights of women.

A new abortion law up for refer endum in November would restrict women's rights, not protect them, say the leaders of the Vote kNOw Coalition, which is working to defeat the statute at the polls.

"I come from a feminist perspective," says Frederica Mathewes-Green, a Vote kNOw spokeswoman. "What angers me is that in the name of women's rights they're taking away rights for women." While her group opposes abortion, she says its goal over the next two months is to defeat what she calls "a bad law" for women.

Abortion-rights supporters, however, say the new theme adopted by abortion opponents is just a subterfuge, a soft-sell meant to appeal to moderates.

"They're trying to reinvent themselves into a women's rights group and a consumer rights group," says Maura Keefe, spokeswoman for Maryland for Choice. "And Maryland voters aren't going to be fooled by that." Polls show most Marylanders favor keeping abortion available. And that, Ms. Keefe says, has forced abortion opponents to revise their campaign pitch.

"They're looking for a way to moderate the extremism of wanting to take away the right to choose," says Loretta Ucelli, of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "Wanting to take away the right to choose and let the government make the decision -- it's hard to disguise that as a woman's issue."

Both sides are beginning to bear down in the referendum campaign over a new law that is meant to keep most abortions legal here even if the Supreme Court should overturn its 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision.

If the voters approve the law, abortion would be allowed for any reason until the time in pregnancy when the fetus could live outside the womb. Later abortions would be allowed only to save a woman's life or health, or if the fetus was deformed.

Supporters of abortion rights say the statute was a careful compromise meant to bar government interference in a private decision while keeping women safe. Abortion opponents call the law "extremist" -- and an affront to women.

Ms. Mathewes-Green says that the new law repeals some older statutes that protected women's rights -- such as a provision that requires abortion clinics to hand out a brochure listing sources of help should the woman choose to have the child. She says the law, because it does not require licensing of clinics, compromises women's safety. And by allowing any physician -- not just specialists -- to perform abortions, women are put at risk, she argues.

"This law takes away protections for women and protects the abortion industry," Ms. Mathewes-Green says. "You see that women's rights have slipped back dramatically and somehow we didn't notice."

Ms. Keefe, of Maryland for Choice, counters that the law in no way risks women's safety. And some of the provisions being repealed are covered elsewhere in the state's health laws, she says.

The emphasis on women's rights is relatively new, Ms. Keefe dTC says. Last year, abortion opponents used the same strategy in Washington state, where an abortion-rights initiative that had been expected to win easily was approved by only a narrow margin.

Lee Minto, the president of Planned Parenthood of King County, in Seattle, says she saw how effective the Vote kNOw strategy can be.

"It's a confusion tactic," Ms. Minto says. "They didn't talk about killing babies. They didn't talk about abortion. They made efforts to obfuscate the issue. They have learned that their messages cost them votes, so what they try to do is confuse voters."

Ms. Minto says she would advise Maryland for Choice to respond quickly to Vote kNOw's interpretation of the law or risk losing votes. "Anxiety causes people to turn things down," she said. "Getting people to vote no is easier."

While the Vote kNOw Coalition -- which is leading the campaign to defeat the abortion law in Maryland -- is talking about women's rights, a smaller anti-abortion group is focusing on the rights of the unborn. Members of the Bowie-based Citizens Against Radical Abortion Laws (CARAL) have been canvassing neighborhoods, leaving fliers that feature color pictures of dead fetuses.

Kip Gannett, CARAL's founder, says, "We see things in the traditional sense. The old law, which allowed abortion in certain circumstances, is being scuttled and it's being replaced with a law that allows abortion on demand."

But Mr. Gannett says Vote kNOw's goal is the same -- restricting abortion.

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