Mimicking public, parties waffle on abortion issue ON POLITICS

Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

September 15, 1992|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- When Gov. Bill Clinton brought hi presidential campaign to the University of Notre Dame the other day, he was well aware that his support of abortion rights could be a political minefield. But he navigated it deftly by focusing on life after birth.

In a style that brought to mind Democratic Rep. Barney Frank's old wisecrack that President Bush was concerned about children from conception to birth, Clinton talked of the obligation to assure the healthy and intellectual development of "every child born in the U.S.A."

Clinton never mentioned abortion directly in his speech to a packed crowd of cheering partisans, sprinkled with a small number of anti-abortion demonstrators. At this most famous of Catholic universities in America Clinton did, however, allude to opposition to abortion that is the strongly held position of the church and of the school's administration. In a plea for tolerance of others' views, he observed that Americans owe every child, once born, "the chance to make the most of his or her God-given potential."

Clinton made his point dramatically later in the speech when he told of meeting a white woman in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who was holding a beautiful black baby. Clinton said he took the child in his arms and asked the woman whose child it was.

She replied, he said, "That's my baby and my baby has AIDS." The woman said she adopted the child, then added: "I respect this debate we're having in this country about life [meaning abortion]. But how I wish we would all reach out and help the children who are living."

Clinton, in his speech, cast child care in the context of family values, this year's campaign cliche, emphasizing the basic Democratic position that while parents have the prime responsibility, government does have a critical role. "No government can love a child and no policy can substitute for a family's care," he said. "But government can either support or undermine families . . . The undeniable fact is that our children's future is shaped both by the values of their parents and the policies of our nation."

Without mentioning his Republican opponent, Clinton added: "I want an America that does more than talk about family values. I want an America that values families."

Vice President Dan Quayle, assigned to carry the family-values argument for the Republican ticket, also tread cautiously across the abortion minefield in his Sunday appearance on ABC News' "This Week With David Brinkley."

Attempts by reporter Sam Donaldson to nail Quayle down on exactly where he stands on the issue produced much waffling, but in the end what seemed to be a pullback from Quayle's earlier flat opposition to abortion.

Pressed on the issue, the vice president said he thought the Pennsylvania law recently upheld narrowly by the Supreme Court was "a good starting point." That law eroded the Roe vs. Wade decision permitting abortions in most cases, but did not overturn it. It requires a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion can be performed on a minor and requires that parental consent be given.

Quayle spoke favorably about parental consent, which in itself is an erosion of the flat prohibition of abortion favored by the most staunch opponents of abortion rights, or even of the exemptions some accept for cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother. At the same time, he said he supports the Republican platform, which specifies no exclusions and backs a "human life amendment" to the Constitution. But when pressed on which one, Quayle wouldn't say.

From all this, it is clear that both presidential campaigns recognize the public ambivalence on the abortion issue that exists between the two extremes that often dominate the public discourse on the issue. While Quayle straddles the fence on what should happen before birth, Clinton tries to steer the debate to what should happen afterward.

Both, notably, talk about adoption as a favored option and on the need to encourage it. But more often that solution is drowned out by extreme and emotional positions as both campaigns try to satisfy those who agree with them while not totally alienating those who differ.

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