An appendix of lost causes

August 13, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

SAN DIEGO -- So the Republican Party opens its convention with a bad case of appendicitis.

All Bob Dole wanted to do was apply a little salve to the party's perennial, or quadrennial, abortion wounds. He prescribed a balm of "tolerance" to be applied to the Republican platform. "Either we're tolerant or we're not, " said the candidate. The platform committee said: "Not."

The one place in America where hard-line pro-lifers hold the majority view is at the Republican convention. There, the power players stiffed both the candidate's request and the moderates' proposal to "acknowledge and respect honest convictions that divide us."

Grab-bag speeches

The only "concession" they made was to attach the dissenting views in a grab-bag collection of convention speeches, flotsam and jetsam. An appendix of lost causes.

Ouch.

As for the Band of Six governors and senators who briefly threatened a floor fight over abortion? They have now completed the Three Stages of Pro-Choice Republican Grief as described by Rep. Barney Frank: Ineffectual Protest, Abject Surrender, and Denial.

Well, platforms come and platforms go. Fewer people will see the text of this party position paper than saw the text of the Unabomber's screed against modern society.

But the visible and overbearing banishment of anyone but anti-abortion extremists (Get Thee to An Appendix) is going to be a lingering pain in the side of the Dole campaign.

This is what the platform says, just a few paragraphs above the promise to promote "training in the safe usage of firearms, especially in programs for women and the elderly." It says that the Republican Party wants a total constitutional ban on abortion. It says that the party wants pro-life judges appointed to the bench. And it says that Republicans want laws to prosecute "those who perform abortions."

For a long time, pro-lifers have tried to draw a distinction between women who have abortions and doctors who perform them. The women are "victims." The doctors are "murderers." But with the availability of abortion pills, exactly who is "performing the abortion"? Are the platform writers harking back to those wonderful yesteryears of 1972 when 11 states made a criminal out of any woman who survived an illegal abortion?

As Ann Stone, the feisty head of Republicans for Choice, asked Gary Bauer, the head of the Family Research Council: "What happens after you start putting women in jail? Do you set up a registry of pregnant women to see which ones carry to term?"

Losing issue

Any way you run the numbers this is a losing issue for the Republicans. As California Gov. Pete Wilson said, abortion-rights supporters "may be a minority inside the convention hall; it is a majority outside the convention hall."

In San Diego, 72 percent of the delegates think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. In the country, only 33 percent agree. In 1992, some 17 percent of Republican voters left the party over the abortion issue.

More to the numerical point, one out of every two women in this country will have an abortion at some point in her life. That is a whole lot of voters, a whole lot of "criminals."

While the party was developing a sore appendix, the Alan Guttmacher Institute released its latest study showing that six out of 10 women having abortions experienced a contraceptive failure. This goes a long way to discrediting the favorite pro-life notion of women as irresponsible creatures who casually get pregnant and then use abortion as "birth control."

It doesn't fit the facts, or women's own experience. The study showed, moreover, that women across religious, racial and economic spectra have abortions.

Silent majority

If there's one thing pro-choice and pro-life people could agree on-- tolerant or not -- it's that the best way to curtail abortion is to cut down unwanted pregnancies. But there's not a word about this in the document.

A Dole administration might never really introduce a constitutional ban. The Republicans have had a majority in Congress for two years without raising the subject.

But this appendicitis is a symptom of how the party thinks about women as independent adults, as moral decision-makers: "Not."

This is no way to heal the other sensitive point in the Republican political anatomy: the gender gap.

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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