20 years after Roe, fight over abortion is changing

January 22, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Harry A. Blackmun, the quiet man at the storm center of the abortion controversy that still blows hard against America's public conscience after 20 years, put aside his accustomed reserve recently to give Bill Clinton some blunt advice.

As they sat together at a conference on ideas, the "Renaissance Weekend" at Hilton Head, S.C., the Supreme Court justice who wrote the first abortion rights decision told the soon-to-be president to forget the idea of picking future members of the court only if they favor abortion rights.

Aides who have been told by Mr. Clinton about this unusually animated conversation between the 84-year-old judge and the 46-year-old leader guess that the new president was being given a message not to equate the court with abortion or judicial quality with political correctness -- and, perhaps more subtly, not to worry too much about Roe vs. Wade's future.

Roe vs. Wade, or at least an important part of it, has weathered its most serious buffeting since Mr. Blackmun announced the decision 20 years ago today. As a result, women will go on having a core constitutional right to abortion.

Whether the justice described it this way, the reality is that the nation's courts are moving away from the center of the storm as it blows into Congress, state legislatures and city councils. The court, while reaffirming the "essence" of Roe vs. Wade, has cleared the way for some legislative experimentation, while backing away from new abortion appeals.

President Clinton may start making some changes without waiting for new laws, perhaps beginning today.

He has been considering a series of White House orders that would restore specific rights eliminated or reduced during the 12 years of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

His first order is expected to allow counselors at federally funded pregnancy clinics to talk openly to patients about abortion as an option.

Sarah Weddington, the Austin, Texas, lawyer who won the original Roe case in 1973, says "the real action this year depends on what Bill Clinton will do" to set the tone.

Abortion rights advocates, who believe they played a major role in Mr. Clinton's victory in November, have very high expectations that the new president will return the favor. Some lobbyists, though, are wondering how they will deal with disappointment if he is less than fervent in supporting new laws, and are trying to figure out ways to set priorities to concentrate their efforts.

Both sides of the abortion controversy will be lobbying actively in legislative halls with an intensity undiminished by two decades of unrelieved combat. Each side, seeing its cause still in peril, worries about keeping up the momentum.

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), remarked this week: "We won a tactical victory: we stopped the trend [away from abortion rights] in the court. The single biggest threat facing the pro-choice movement now is complacency. Our victories bring complacency, not renewed vigor."

Ms. Weddington commented that "Roe [vs. Wade] is weaker than it was in 1973 [as a guarantee of abortion rights]; it has been diluted. We have to build it back up to its former strength." That effort, she said, "is going to be primarily legislative."

On the other side, Nelly Gray, president of March for Life, who today will lead tens of thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators to the court's steps for a protest as she has every Jan. 22 since 1973, sees a need for abortion foes to "take the offensive" anew.

Fetal life, she said, "is less secure" now than then because "millions of women have participated in the murder of their children."

And, she says, the message has still not gotten across that "there is no justification whatsoever for killing any innocent life from conception, for 4,000 murders of pre-born children every day."

Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee, noting today's "tragic anniversary" of Roe vs. Wade, denounced efforts to get Congress to adopt "a national abortion-on-demand law" and added: "Pro-life Americans must and will speak out like never before against this new pro-abortion extremism."

Abortion foes have lost the reliable veto that President Bush, and before him President Reagan, would use to stop any abortion rights laws emerging from Congress. They are determined to use the prospect of adversity to mobilize their forces anew to keep abortion rights bills from gaining the mere majority now needed on Capitol Hill for passage.

It appears, at this point, that much of Congress' focus this year will be on laws to favor abortion rights rather than restrict them: a sweeping new "freedom of choice" act to codify Roe and thus take away much of state legislatures' power to act, a new measure to protect abortion clinics from blockades like Operation Rescue's mass protests, and a restoration after 16 years of federal financing of abortions for the poor.

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