Abortion foes press for changes Marchers support outlawing of form of late-term abortion

January 23, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of abortion opponents gathered in Washington yesterday, as they have each of the last 22 years on the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, to press the government for changes in the law.

On this occasion, a principal focus of the march was to support legislation that would outlaw a rarely used late-term form of abortion. Both the Senate and the House have passed versions of such a bill, but President Clinton has said he will veto it.

Both sides in the abortion debate see the legislation as important, as it is the first time since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 that Congress has voted to ban any method of abortion.

"It was a very significant event," Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said yesterday of the bill. "It enabled us to have hearings in both houses of Congress."

Ms. Franz said that if the president vetoed the legislation, "he will certainly have to answer the charge that he is not at all in the mainstream of the American public on this issue."

The highly specialized procedure that the bill would outlaw, known medically as intact dilation and evacuation, is performed only after 20 weeks of gestation. It involves partially extracting a fetus and collapsing the skull while it is still in the uterus by suctioning out the brain.

Abortion opponents at yesterday's rally used their preferred term for the procedure, calling it a partial-birth abortion, nomenclature that has proved effective in the political debate.

Medical officials have said that about 13,000, or fewer than 1 percent, of the nation's 1.5 million annual abortions are performed at 20 weeks of gestation. White House officials have said that the bill represents "an erosion of a woman's right to choose," and that the current versions of the bill do not make it clear that the life and health of the mother must be protected.

Several members of Congress who addressed the crowd near the White House vowed to override any presidential veto of the bill, although whether they could muster enough votes to do so is unlikely, at least in the Senate.

But for most of the marchers, the rally was about the broader issue of abortion, which has been legal since the Supreme Court found a constitutional right to abortion in 1973 in the case of Roe vs. Wade.

For Jennifer Patterson, a 23-year-old pregnant mother of three from Wichita, Kan., it was her third Washington rally.

"People need to be reminded that abortion is morally wrong," Ms. Patterson said as she stood on the sidewalk outside the Supreme Court near a huge sign with a photograph of a dismembered fetus.

Ms. Patterson said she had worked for her cause outside abortion clinics, stopping entering patients to try to persuade them to change their minds about having an abortion.

Nellie Gray, the organizer of the 23 annual marches, said that yesterday's crowd was about 125,000. But Capt. Thomas Wilkins of the U.S. Park Police estimated the number at closer to 60,000.

Most of the marchers came here by bus, many sponsored by their churches.

After the speeches near the White House, many thronged the halls of Congress while others demonstrated outside the Supreme Court.

Asked about the criticism of Mr. Clinton expressed throughout the day by the marchers, Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said:

"The president is confident they know his views on the importance of choice for women. They also know that he hopes that very divisive issues such as choice can be addressed by the American people in a way that minimizes hostility and violence and maximizes understanding and common ground."

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