Don't be misled by right wing's silence on key abortion issues

July 16, 1999|By Tom Teepen

THOUGHT much about the abortion issue lately? Probably not. And that's the idea.

An eerie quiet has come over many of the usually clamorous sources of abortion opposition. From Christian Coalition guru Pat Robertson to hyper-right commentators like Cal Thomas to the pack of Republican presidential runners wheezing ever farther behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the issue is being downplayed. If they are asked, then, yes, they are still for criminalizing abortion once again, but the old fire has been banked, or seems to have been.

Mr. Bush himself, although also on the record for outlawing choice, says he would not make abortion opposition a pass-fail test for judicial nominees -- political semaphore meant to signal that he's not a zealot on the matter.

Don't be misled, however. The play may be shifting but the game hasn't been conceded. Rather, it is taking new forms. Two, actually.

First, the savvy abortion foes have figured out that by demanding open militance of favored political candidates, they chase voters, especially women, away from the very candidates who, in office, could do them the most good -- and that there's no chance for the constitutional amendment against abortion they've been filibustering for anyway.

The goal for the far right now is to capture the Supreme Court. Three justices, all GOP appointees, are in their 70s and, especially if a Republican is elected president, likely will be stepping down during the next presidential term.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist has always opposed the Roe vs. Wade decision, which found an implied privacy right to abortion in the Constitution. But one probable retiree, John Paul Stevens, has supported Roe and another, Sandra Day O'Connor, wavers.

Litmus test or not, a Republican president is likely to appoint justices who would reverse Roe or deeply compromise it. The seeming quiet you hear on the issue now is really the sound of a stealth campaign.

Meanwhile, the open political action has shifted mainly to the state legislatures, where it makes little scary noise nationally.

Anti-abortion lawmakers continue inventing ways to make the theoretical right to abortion difficult to access, with 408 abortion-harassing laws proposed this year to last year's 335.

New state laws have been enacted to impose special regulations on abortion providers, bar family planning funding to groups that provide abortion referrals, deny tax exempt status to nonprofit groups that have any relationship to abortion, forbid Medicare providers to offer family planning or abortion services, prohibit state university hospitals from performing most abortions. And on and on. A Florida law authorizes anti-choice license plates.

Texas, with seven new anti-abortion laws, leads the nation, its legislature unharried in its busy work by Mr. Bush. There's less heavy crunching on the footpath but the game, as Sherlock Holmes was wont to say, is still very much afoot.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers. His e-mail address:

Pub Date: 7/16/99

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