Abortion controversy seems to have no end ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- The 20th anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion did not pass quietly here. As expected, the city was overrun with opponents of abortion rights to remind everyone how complex and contentious this issue has been -- and probably will continue to be for another generation of Americans.

The only thing different about this year's march is that the "right-to-life" demonstrators, as they characterize themselves, didn't have a friend and ally in the White House for the first time in 12 years.

It is probably fair to say, in fact, that the controversy over abortion rights has been the only issue to match the long national debate over civil rights in terms of its emotional content. And in this case, there is still little prospect of finding the common ground that ultimately was found on civil rights with the landmark legislation of 1964 and 1965. On that question the national ethic finally was codified and accepted.

What makes this issue unique is that, for one side at least, it has such high moral content. Abortion opponents equate those who support abortion rights with murderers and put them essentially beyond redemption.

This puts politicians in the kind of situation they hate most. Those who oppose abortion rights find themselves, because of the company they keep, essentially making a judgment that a large bloc of their constituents are taking an immoral position. And those who support abortion rights must accept the fact that a large bloc of their constituents consider them in an immoral position.

The element of moral certitude is what makes it impossible for the two sides to find that common ground. And there is little reason to believe that things will be any easier as the issue is fought out, as it will be more often now, at the level of the state legislatures and governors' offices.

The views of the electorate are relatively clear. Opinion polls find a majority that believes the government, at any level, should not be interfering with a woman's decision on whether to have an abortion.

But polls also find a majority for some restrictions, such as those in the Pennsylvania case, including parental notification or consent and a waiting period for a woman seeking an abortion. The polls also show a clear majority opposed to public funding of abortion.

These findings seemed to be reflected in that Pennsylvania decision last summer in which the Supreme Court effectively reaffirmed Roe vs. Wade but allowed restrictions so long as they don't impose an "undue burden" on the woman seeking an abortion.

The question of what constitutes an "undue burden" now must be settled through state legislative actions and appeals of those actions to the courts that eventually will reach the Supreme Court.

But even new case law defining "undue burden" is not going to settle this controversy -- not when the opponents of abortion rights are convinced -- as they keep demonstrating they are -- that abortion is murder. Nor can the abortion rights forces put the controversy to rest by Congress passing and President Clinton signing some form of the "Freedom of Choice" act that would essentially codify the original Roe decision into law.

When people think something is immoral and are as emotionally intense as the abortion rights opponents, they are not going to swallow it, however the government acts.

In terms of electoral politics, the abortion issue has never been as important as those on both sides have expected. There have been some cases -- the election of L. Douglas Wilder as governor of Virginia in 1989, for example -- in which support for abortion rights appeared to have tipped the balance in a close race.

There have been other cases in which elections for lesser offices may have been decided on abortion votes. There is valid reason to believe George Bush lost some support among Republican and independent women on this issue last fall, but no evidence to suggest it made the difference and cost him the election.

The one thing that has become clear since 1973 is that the politician who waffles on the abortion issue is a dead duck. It is one of those rare public questions on which it is impossible to find compromise. This has been true for 20 years and is likely to be true for the next 20.

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