WASHINGTON — President Reagan delivered a pep talk to 70,000 shivering anti-abortion marchers Tuesday and called for a constitutional amendment to protect the unborn. But both he and "pro-life" leaders also emphatically denounced the bombings of abortion clinics.
In the first public act after Monday's inauguration ceremonies, Reagan spoke by telephone from the Oval Office to the demonstrators of all ages standing in subfreezing temperatures on the Ellipse, a quarter-mile from the White House.
The protesters, marking the 12th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing most abortions, then marched two miles to the court, where 29 were arrested as they knelt in prayer on the steps.
Several demonstrators left a tiny, black-draped mock coffin on the steps of the court, where tight security was in force, as a symbol of their protest. Demonstration leaders later met with the President at the White House.
Reagan, who has said that he regards his signing of an abortion liberalization bill as his biggest mistake as California's governor, never before had addressed Washington's annual March for Life, although he regularly had been asked to do so.
While the President's staunch anti-abortion position appeals politically to the avid "pro-life" activists, there is continuing evidence in public opinion polls that the majority of Americans disagree with him.
Countering the "pro-life" marchers Tuesday, representatives of the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights called a news conference in the United Methodist Building adjacent to the Supreme Court to plead for a "tempering of the rhetoric in this debate."
Fredrica F. Hodges, executive director of the organization, said the 30 bombings and arson incidents at abortion facilities during the last two years is "very intimidating. There is a sense of fear now among pro-choice organizations and the staffs of clinics."
The bombings also were denounced by Dr. J.C. Willke of Cincinnati, president of the National Right to Life Committee. The violence, he said, "undermines and destroys the very ethic we're working for. If there are potential bombers out there, let me say to them: 'Don't throw that bomb. In the long run, it will take longer to stop the killing (of fetuses), and you're not helping out.' "
Reagan, in his comments to the demonstrators, recalled that in his State of the Union address last year he urged Americans "to rise above bitterness and reproach and seek a greater understanding of this issue." He said such understanding "begins with the recognition of the reality of life before birth and the reality of death by abortion."
Then he added: "But the spirit of understanding also includes, as all of you know, a complete rejection of violence as a means of settling this issue. We cannot condone the threatening or taking of human life to protest the taking of human life by way of abortion."
The protesters applauded, as they frequently did throughout his six-minute remarks.
Sees Changed Attitude
Reagan told the marchers that "I feel these days, as never before, the momentum is with us. . . . There are already signs that we've changed the public attitude on abortion. The number performed each year is finally leveling off. The general feeling that abortion is just a small, harmless medical procedure that's simply a matter of choice has almost disappeared. We're making progress."
The President pledged to continue working with those "who believe, as I do, that abortion is the taking of life of a living human being, that the right to abortion is not secured by the Constitution and that the state has a compelling interest in protecting the life of each person before birth."
At the conclusion of his remarks, March for Life President Nellie Gray told Reagan that her previously divided organization now is united behind a proposed constitutional amendment that California Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) intends to introduce in the House. Reagan replied: "Good for you, and I support you."
The proposed amendment states simply that "the paramount right to life is vested in each human being at the moment of fertilization, without regard to age, health or condition of dependency."
White House Assistant Press Secretary Anson Franklin said later that Reagan would support any "reasonable" legislation to prohibit an abortion "except when the life of the mother is endangered." Franklin said that supporters of the "paramount" amendment interpret its language as allowing for an abortion to save a mother's life because she would be acting in self-defense.
Anti-abortion forces in Congress throughout Reagan's presidency have been sharply split over what specific legislation to unite behind and the President has held back lobbying aggressively for some measure until, as Franklin put it, "they get their act together."
There is ample precedent for a President campaigning on behalf of a constitutional amendment to overturn a Supreme Court ruling, constitutional scholars say. Stanford University law professor Gerald Gunther said Tuesday: "There is nothing improper about a politician using legitimate means to undo court decisions."
The marchers arrived from across the nation, many carrying vivid photographs of aborted fetuses and shouting: "No compromise."