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Battle Lines Form Over 'Strangers' : Television: Anti-abortion activists plan a campaign to dissuade advertisers from sponsoring a movie about a man who went to court to abort his comatose wife's fetus in order to save her life. It airs in April.

March 13, 1991|DENNIS McDOUGAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While Henry Winkler awaits airing of his first TV starring assignment in eight years, anti-abortion activists are gearing up to dissuade advertisers from sponsoring the two-hour CBS docudrama "Absolute Strangers."

In the movie, scheduled to air April 14, the former Fonz portrays Martin Klein, a Long Island accountant who went to court in 1989 seeking permission to abort his comatose wife's fetus in order to save her life.

"Absolute Strangers" chronicles Klein's legal battle with anti-abortion activists who sought guardianship of the unborn child in order to allow Nancy Klein's pregnancy to proceed. At one point, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recommended that the nation's high court hear the case. But the high court rejected it, letting the New York state court's ruling in Klein's favor stand, and the abortion was performed.

"What I see is that it's the story of taking responsibility for your own actions," Winkler said in an interview. "A man is working very hard and is enjoying his family and all of a sudden there is this gigantic lump of tragedy that is thrown in the middle of this bubble. He never thought about what to do when life happens, you know? It's a matter of letting no one get in the way of taking responsibility of your own destiny."

Those opposed to abortion see the saga of the Kleins much differently. The Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Assn., which led a campaign against the NBC movie "Roe vs. Wade" two years ago because it depicted the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, plans a similar effort against "Absolute Strangers."

"We will contact the advertisers and alert them to this particular program," said the Rev. Donald Wildmon, executive director of the American Family Assn. "Most advertisers I know wouldn't want to be involved in any kind of program, pro or con, about abortion."

The National Right to Life Committee has taken no position on "Absolute Strangers," even though it was peripherally involved in fighting Klein's efforts to win permission to abort his wife's 17-week pregnancy in a Long Island courtroom two years ago. The case was taken to court by a New York group allied with the committee, calling itself the Coalition for Life.

The National Right to Life Committee had criticized the "Roe vs. Wade" TV movie as "prime-time, pro-abortion propaganda," but committee spokeswoman Nancy Myers said that the only action her Washington-based lobbying group would take regarding "Absolute Strangers" was probably not to watch.

Wildmon's organization has been involved in anti-abortion and anti-pornography advertiser boycotts, letter-writing campaigns and demonstrations against TV and radio programming for more than a decade. He predicted that CBS will "probably lose a couple million dollars" in ad revenue.

"Hey, they want to lose money? They can go ahead," Wildmon said. "We'll help them lose a little and ask them to forgive (us) all the time when we're doing it."

CBS declined to comment on Wildmon's remarks.

Nancy Klein, the 33-year-old brain-damaged victim of an auto accident, did eventually emerge from her coma and is regaining her memory and motor functions while undergoing rehabilitation in a long-term care facility in northern New Jersey. Two years after the accident, she is now able to spend a few days a week at home.

In the meantime, her husband is raising their 5-year-old daughter and carrying on his accounting business between stints on "Nightline" and other news/talk programs.

"In my mind," he said during a visit to the movie set in Valencia, "our story's unique in that it deals with many issues: family rights, women's rights, constitutional rights, head injury. People forget, we're dealing with a serious injury. Although people may have disagreed with my decision, universally they agreed that I was the one who should be making the decision. On that issue I don't think it's as controversial. Who should be making decisions regarding loved ones and family? It should be the family."

In the court case, Long Island anti-abortion groups strenuously disagreed. Vermont attorney Lawrence Washburn, who gained notoriety seven years ago when he attempted to become the guardian of Baby Jane Doe, argued the case on behalf of anti-abortion activists. One activist, John J. Broderick, filed a show-cause order seeking legal guardianship of the fetus, and a second activist, Coalition for Life founder John Short, sought to represent Nancy Klein's interests. Both of their requests were turned down in favor of Martin Klein's request to give physicians permission to abort the fetus.

For two months, the case galvanized much of the Eastern seaboard with nightly TV newscasts displaying anti-abortion demonstrators on the courthouse steps arrayed against Martin Klein supporters carrying a banner that read "Let Nancy Klein Live."

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