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COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

Dole's Gender Gap Leads to Credibility Gap

He backs amendment that would criminalize abortion, then says the issue is no biggie.

June 11, 1996|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. He can be reached via e-mail at

After decades of tormenting us with the "abortion-as-murder" issue, the Republicans have suddenly announced that they were only kidding. How else is one to interpret Bob Dole's call for a "declaration of tolerance" in the Republican Party platform? Tolerance of baby killers?

Dole said he would welcome new language in his party's platform suggesting that abortion is just one of many issues on which people of goodwill can disagree. He wants pro-choice Republicans to feel totally welcome in the party that Dole is attempting to unify behind his election. At the same time, he reiterated his support for retaining the party plank calling for a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Am I the only one who finds this stance not only a stark logical contradiction, but also morally repulsive?

C'mon people, if abortion is murder, how can there be room in the leadership of the party for those who condone murder? And if it isn't murder, by what standard could one justify changing the U.S. Constitution to ban abortion?

If this is an issue on which decent people may differ, and we respect their right to act on the basis of their own moral convictions, then why should that right be reserved only for Republicans? How can Dole tolerate diversity of opinion on the abortion issue within the Republican Party, yet continue to back a constitutional amendment that would deny such freedom to the entire nation?

The whole point of the constitutional amendment banning abortion is to compel all citizens and legislative bodies to accept the theology of those who insist the fetus is a child. As the Republican antiabortion plank states, "We believe the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a Human Life Amendment [to the Constitution]."

Once you put that wording, which Dole endorses, into the Constitution, there will be no middle ground. Clearly it permits no "tolerance" of any woman, under any circumstance, legally availing herself of this procedure. It would even rule out abortion in cases where rape and incest are involved, which Dole himself has said should be allowed. An annoying detail.

Although Dole has made abortion abolition a centerpiece of his political career, he obviously has not seriously thought the problem through. In March, when ABC's Cokie Roberts asked Dole whether he considered abortion to be murder, he replied, "I don't know . . . . Well, obviously it's taking a life. You have to protect the unborn." When Roberts asked him, "If it's taking a life, then why would you have exceptions for rape and incest? That fetus is still a life," Dole admitted, "That's true, but I think . . . as true as that may be, there are still political realities."

So forget trying to make moral or legal sense out of Dole's position and focus instead on the electoral necessities. Dole can't give up the abortion ban issue because that's been the hook for pulling Catholics and blue-collar workers out of the ranks of the Democratic Party. Otherwise, why would the average worker vote for the party of the privileged rich?

Dole's problem is that playing the abortion card has alienated many other voters. The specter of government regulating life in the womb has proved awkward for Republicans claiming to be the champions of a less intrusive government. Perhaps that's why most of the popular Republican governors, and likely running mates, are pro-choice. According to the latest New York Times/CBS poll, 66% of Republicans oppose keeping the constitutional abortion prohibition plank in the party's platform, while only 27% favor it. But to drop this plank would turn off the Republican shock troops who are distributing millions of Christian Coalition election packets stressing the abortion issue.

The antiabortion people have every right to expect not only a commitment to the constitutional ban but also that Dole would appoint Supreme Court justices who agree with them. Given Dole's advanced age, the views of his vice presidential candidate are also crucial. Dole trivialized the issue when he told the Boston Globe that he would not rule out a running mate who favors choice, comparing it to "saying you are not going to have anybody who is left-handed or right-handed. . . . My view is that we are all Republicans ."

How can you support a constitutional amendment that would make criminals out of women who choose to have an abortion and then turn around and say the issue is no biggie in picking a vice presidential candidate?

Hey, when you're down 20 points in the polls and there's a massive gender gap to overcome, it's easy.

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