GARDEN GROVE — Ensuring that abortion will again be a major issue in the 46th Congressional District race, two leading GOP opponents of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) are already attacking her for opposing a ban on the controversial partial-birth abortion procedure.
Rather than defend her vote against the ban, Sanchez said she will try to steer the debate back to a general discussion of abortion and "the right to choose" by saying she, too, opposes late-term abortions, with certain exceptions.
That same strategy for confronting the partial-birth abortion issue is being suggested to pro-choice candidates nationwide by women's and abortion rights groups, said Sanchez consultant Bill Wachob.
"They don't want candidates talking about partial abortions. They want them talking about being opposed to late-term abortions, except in the case of life and health of the mother," he said.
That approach was just used successfully in a Central California congressional race by Democrat Lois Capps to woo moderates, including Republican women. Capps was elected to Congress on Tuesday, despite more than $200,000 spent on television ads by a conservative, Washington-based anti-abortion group, which attacked her stand on partial-birth abortion.
Capps' husband, Rep. Walter Capps, who died in office, and Sanchez were among the 136 members in the House who voted against the ban on partial-birth abortions that Republicans pressed in both houses of Congress last year. Several Democratic members called the bill a GOP political ploy to manufacture an issue to use in the 1998 elections.
Sanchez's current position on abortion differs somewhat from the unqualified backing she gave abortion rights during her 1996 campaign. In a recent interview, Sanchez said she supports banning late-term abortions, except in the case of "a major physical deformity of the child" or to protect the health of pregnant women.
Two years ago, she called it an entirely private matter, saying: "I believe reproductive choice is between women and their doctors and that government should stay out of the bedroom."
Sanchez emphasized that her opposition to some late-term abortions is not for political purposes, but rather based on long-held beliefs about the private nature of the decision to abort a fetus.
"I know what my position is, because it has remained the same even before I got involved in politics," she said. "I do not believe that the far right, the people whose only issue is to stop a woman's choice completely, . . . are fairly representative of what the American public's positions are."
Several leaders in the abortion rights movement said their strategy in shifting the language of the abortion debate is partly born of frustration at being attacked repeatedly over the rarely used partial-birth procedure.
Conservative Republicans and anti-abortion groups have successfully demonized it in the past two years, while trying to redefine the abortion debate in terms most favorable to their candidates. Polls have shown that the American public broadly favors choice, but is overwhelmingly opposed to partial-birth abortion.
"When you start dividing abortion along the lines of whether the state should pay for it, or parental consent, or late-term abortion, then the numbers and support for choice drops dramatically," said political consultant Mark Thompson.
The tactic has divided Democrats and drawn some to the anti-abortion side. In October, Republicans in the Senate fell just three votes short of the two-thirds needed in both houses to override President Clinton's veto of a nationwide ban on the procedure except to save the life of a mother.
Both sides in the national debate predict that the fight will intensify in 1998, and the 46th Congressional District--which includes much of Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Anaheim, as well as parts of Tustin, Orange and Fountain Valley--is a likely hot spot.
Already, two Republicans in the June primary for the seat, former Rep. Robert K. Dornan and Lisa Hughes, an attorney with a family law practice, are saying they will make Sanchez's vote against the partial-birth abortion ban a top issue.
Dornan has made it a routine part of his attack on her, calling it a vote for "infanticide" during delivery. He said the health-of-the-mother exception includes mental health, and that "means all abortions for all nine months."
Hughes has charged there is hypocrisy in Sanchez's vote coming from "a Hispanic Catholic woman. It goes against morality, against the will of the people in the district. We will hold her accountable."
Sanchez acknowledged in the interview that "as a Catholic, I have a problem" in permitting abortions of a deformed child, but added that it "is a very difficult decision and should be made by the parents."
Peter Dickinson, co-director of Gary Bauer's Campaign for Working Families, which poured $200,000 into the campaign to beat Capps, said Sanchez could be on its fall target list.
Pro-choice groups are expected to join the battle too. Stephanie Cohen of Emily's List, which backs women pro-choice Democrats, has already raised $100,000 among its members for Sanchez in the past year and expects to raise more.
Peter M. Warren can be reached at (714) 966-5982 or by e-mail at email@example.com.