HOUSTON — The Republican Convention on Monday adopted a stringent, anti-abortion platform plank that disgruntled abortion rights advocates predicted would hurt President Bush's prospects for reelection in November.
"It's a terrible mistake," said Rep. Bill Green (R-N.Y.), referring to the platform plank. "It can hurt the ticket. It can hurt party candidates all down the line."
To register their objections, abortion rights advocates wore pink satin armbands that were clearly visible in all parts of the convention hall as the party platform was passed by voice vote. But a small chorus of "no" votes was quickly drowned out by the cheers of victorious conservatives, who had succeeded in retaining the party's 1988 anti-abortion plank.
Conservatives minimized the political impact of the decision. "We have won three landslides on that platform," said Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.). "We'll soon see the issue of abortion become secondary in importance to the economy and world leadership."
Still, the vote did not lay the matter to rest.
Abortion rights delegates vowed to return to the 1996 Republican convention with the strength to reverse the party's stand on the issue. And, in the meantime, it was clear that abortion would continue to divide the party.
Responding to charges that the platform might deprive him of victory, Bush said in an interview on Monday that he is still "unashamedly pro-life."
But unlike Bush's personal view, which allows for abortion in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother, the Republican Party platform would permit no exceptions. It proclaims that "the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed" under any circumstances and calls for the appointment of judges who hold that view.
Republicans in favor of abortion rights insist that an overwhelming majority of GOP rank-and-file members side with them on the issue. According to some polls, as many as 71% of the Republican Party favors a woman's right to chose whether she will have an abortion.
The platform vote was a disappointing defeat for those activists who had tried to mount a petition campaign to get sufficient signatures to bring the matter up for a roll-call vote. They were overwhelmed by a highly organized defensive effort by Bush-Quayle operatives who wanted to avoid an embarrassing floor fight.
Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, who favors abortion rights, said that the delegates on his side of the issue obtained the necessary signatures in only four delegations--Massachusetts, New Mexico, Maine and the Virgin Islands. They were two delegations short of what was needed to bring the matter before the convention.
According to a senior campaign official, the Bush-Quayle team closely monitored a dozen delegations and snuffed out budding rebellions in several of them, including the California delegation.
In a closed-door California caucus Sunday, a number of delegates were persuaded by state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren to withdraw their names from an abortion rights petition. The move followed a televised appeal by Gov. Pete Wilson from Sacramento.
Mary Matalin, deputy campaign manager for Bush, addressed the Connecticut delegation when she learned that they were inclined to sign the petitions. Her speech apparently persuaded the delegates to abandon the protest.
In addition, abortion rights advocates were barred from carrying any placards into the convention hall.
Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.), who had urged the platform committee to compromise on the abortion issue by dropping all references to it, said he was unhappy with the outcome but satisfied that "there is much, much more in our party's platform that unites us."
Weld said that the abortion rights advocates were persuaded to drop their effort in the interest of party unity. "We decided at 10:15 this morning to get on with the business of reelecting George Bush," he said.
Phyllis Schlafly, head of the Republican National Coalition for Life, said that Bush has no choice but to stick with the 1988 position on abortion if he wants to hold on to those Democratic swing voters known as Reagan Democrats. In addition, she said, it would have been political suicide for the party to reverse its position on the issue at this late date.
"It is clear that turncoats lose," Schlafly said.
But abortion rights advocates such as Green argued that the political climate in the country has changed dramatically since the last election in 1988 and that efforts by the Supreme Court to chip away at abortion rights have made it a more potent election issue.
Showing the increasing determination of the abortion rights advocates to reverse the party's position, Mary Dent Crisp, chairwoman of a Republican abortion rights organization, declared that 1992 would be the "last pro-life platform" for the Republican Party.
"We intend to make sure that the 1996 Republican presidential nominee talks and acts with compassion for all the women of America," she said.