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Democrat abortion opponents contend there's price to pay

DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION CHICAGO 1996

by Dana Wilkie STAFF WRITER
The San Diego Union-Tribune, August 26, 1996

When Cathe Halford helped coordinate Ann Richard's campaign for Texas governor six years ago, her abortion-rights views were in lock step with those of her boss, her party leaders, and what she believed to be the overwhelming majority of fellow Democrats.

That was before the middle of the campaign, when Halford's 18-year-old, just-graduated, unwed daughter got pregnant. The family crisis provoked a reformation in the thinking of this formerly longtime supporter of legalized abortion, who now was awaiting the birth of her first grandchild.

In the end, Halford's daughter decided to keep the baby, and Halford became an active abortion foe -- but not without cost.

"You will not advance in this party if you do not toe the line on this issue," says the 46-year-old Odessa resident, who had been selected as a state-convention delegate every year since 1984, but had to fight just to be an alternate delegate after she changed her abortion views. "It is a litmus test in the Democratic Party."

By some estimates -- which are backed by at least two major polls -- as much as 45 percent of Democratic voters believe abortion should be illegal except when a pregnancy involves rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life. It is a far higher number than the party's platform and its leaders would suggest, and it raises questions about whether the party that applauds itself for nondiscriminatory "inclusion" has muzzled the voices of those who would paint for the party a different profile.

Republicans, whose own rift over abortion has created for them a public-relations nightmare, are happy to play these numbers up, and to shift the brand of "intolerance" to the Democrats as they meet here this week for their national convention. Religious groups are happy to back the GOP up.

"Pro-choice is a term defined by those who invented it," says Helen Alvare, spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It means no limits on abortion -- no informed consent, no parental consent. To say the majority of Democrats are in that category is distinctly misleading."

There is no doubt that there exists a vocal and active anti-abortion faction in the Democratic Party.

Attesting to this are groups like Texas Democrats for Life, of which Halford is a member, and Feminists for Life of America, a national organization of Democrats and others whose role model is Susan B. Anthony, the pioneering women's suffrage leader who advocated anti-abortion laws. On Capitol Hill, there are more than 40 Democrats who consistently vote against abortion, about the same number as Republicans who vote for abortion rights.

An indication of this faction's growing voice was the party's decision this year to include in its platform a "conscience plank" that restates support for legalized abortion, but acknowledges "the individual conscience of each American on this difficult issue."

There was calculation in this on at least two levels: to appease Democratic opponents of abortion and to suggest that, unlike Republicans, Democrats can be harmonious even if they disagree on this crucial issue.

And Democratic leaders dismiss, as Vice President Al Gore did yesterday, the notion that anyone is being muzzled. On ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley" Gore noted that at least two convention speakers -- Reps. David Bonior of Michigan and Tony Hall of Ohio -- plan to discuss their opposition to abortion.

Nevertheless, several Democratic congressmen and religious groups today plan to stage what they say will be a major anti-abortion rally at a museum here. Their message: The party needs an even stronger statement defending "innocent human life" if it hopes to adequately represent its membership.

The Tarrance Group, a respected pollster based in Houston and Washington, D.C., finds that among Democratic voters, 8 percent say abortion should be illegal all the time, 14 percent say it should be legal only to save a mother's life, and 23 percent say it should be legal only to save the mother's life or in cases of rape or incest. A study by the Florida-based Marketing Research Institute found similar responses.

"I think what it shows is, just because someone is a Democrat doesn't mean they're pro-abortion," says Mike Baselice, The Tarrance Group's vice president. "When you look at the delegates and compare their (abortion positions) to that of the national electorate, one finds they are much further from the norm than the average Democratic voter."

But other major pollsters find these numbers suspect. These surveyors say that pollsters like Marketing Research Institute -- which often works for religious groups -- create the misleading impression that those who oppose abortion under some circumstances oppose abortion in all cases.

Pollsters agree that very often, Democrats' support for abortion can wane when it comes to the finer questions of the procedure: Should women end pregnancies in the second or third trimester? Should teens abort without parental consent? Should parents abort if they want a boy instead of a girl?

"If you said to me, Do you think parents should (abort) based on gender selection?' I'd say no, I don't support that,' " says Peter Hart of Hart Research Associates Inc., which has consistently found that the overwhelming majority of Democrats believe abortion is a decision that should be left to a woman and her doctor. "That does not make me pro-life."

Democratic consultant Mark Mellman typically finds that upward of 80 percent of Democrats say government should never make abortion illegal in all circumstances.

"The issue is how is the question positioned," Mellman says. "If it's positioned as the Republicans' platform -- should government pass a law restricting people's right to have an abortion? -- people don't support that. But that's different from asking, Should abortion be permitted in certain types of circumstances?' "

Whether the Democrats' anti-abortion faction is an insignificant footnote or a minority to be reckoned with, there remains the question of whether that minority is fairly represented by the party.

Julie Buckner, a spokeswoman for the California Democratic Party's campaign arm, says it is.

"We are a pro-choice party, but we recognize other views," she says. "I wouldn't fall into this Republican trap of saying that we are somehow less tolerant than they."

To another Texan, Lois Kerschen, those words are hollow. This lifelong Catholic Democrat remembers the humiliation of handing out pro-life literature at a state party convention, and having it crumpled up and thrown back in her face.

"We're the party that claims we're very open to everyone," says Kerschen, a Beaumont resident and Texas Democrats for Life president who recalls the "closet" anti-abortion Democrats who stumbled on her "pro-life" booth at a state convention.

"So many people came up and said, I thought I was the only one,' " Kerschen says. "They said they felt so lonely and alienated, and they didn't know if they could stay in the party."

Copyright 1996 The San Diego Union-Tribune