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Abortion Rights Supporters Still Feel a Chill in Big Tent

Policy: From platform to podium, advocates have 'basically have been shut out' at convention.


PHILADELPHIA — In all the sunny talk about the inclusive spirit of George W. Bush's Republican Party, one group is decidedly out in the cold: abortion rights supporters.

They have little place in the official convention speaking lineup and none at all in the GOP platform, which is even more unfriendly to reproductive rights this year than during the last go-round in 1996.

The platform now supports replacing family planning programs for teens with abstinence education. And this year there was not a minority report to reflect that there are different views within the party.

"We basically have been shut out here," said Darlee Crockett, co-chairwoman of Planned Parenthood Republicans for Choice, a national advocacy organization.

The party's rejection of abortion rights Republicans is particularly striking given the Bush campaign's effort to reach out--albeit in a limited way--to gay and lesbian Republicans and other groups outside the Republican mainstream.

"It was such a fine opportunity to extend a welcome to pro-choice Republicans and it didn't happen," said Roselyn O'Connell, president of the National Women's Political Caucus and the first Republican to head the organization in 14 years. The caucus encourages women to run for political office at every level of government.

Not a Significant Political Factor

The convention has sent a clear signal that abortion rights Republicans are not considered a significant political factor in the party and probably will have trouble making themselves heard within the administration if Bush is elected president.

"There's no sense of a pendulum on this issue," said Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who specializes in congressional politics. "The movement--to the extent that there's been movement--has all been in a conservative direction."

Nationally, more than two-thirds of the population believe that the abortion decision should be between a woman and her doctor. Among Republicans, 51% share this view. A smaller percentage supports the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

However, the Republican convention is dominated by activists who tend to be from the party's most conservative wing. Those activists often take leading roles in the primary election campaigns that choose Republican candidates.

Thus, Republican abortion rights members have had to struggle to maintain their ground in Congress in recent years.

"It's a pretty lonely group; there are maybe 13 or 14 pro-choice Republicans in the House," said Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), sounding forlorn as she spoke to a gathering of abortion rights supporters at a reception in Philadelphia. She called on supporters to "do a lot more so that we have some more friends."

At the convention, the effort to avoid controversy has translated into a near total absence of abortion rights Republicans in any official capacity.

One of the few exceptions is Thomas J. Ridge, who as governor of the convention's host state was hard to keep in the shadows. He is among those who will speak before Bush's keynote address Thursday. But New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who was the co-chairwoman of the GOP convention in 1996 and is one of only two female Republican governors, is not on the program at all.

"She's been a lightning rod for her position on 'partial-birth' abortion," said Marty Dannenfelser of the Family Research Council, a conservative family values organization, referring to her veto of a proposed ban on the procedure in New Jersey.

The party's hard-line stance has left Republicans who support abortion rights with the uncomfortable choice of either finding some mitigating aspects of Bush's stand on the issue or abandoning him altogether. Bush opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

Some say they take comfort in Bush's promise that he would not limit his judicial appointments to those who would strike down abortion rights.

"I don't think Roe v. Wade would be overturned--well, I'm hoping not," said Laurie Ersek, 37, a Philadelphia marketing director who attended a reception in honor of abortion rights lawmakers and advocates.

"He promised not to apply a litmus test for Supreme Court justices, and I'm confident he will not," said Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose).

However, the abortion rights Republicans may be relying on a rather slender reed in trusting that abortion laws would remain intact. Bush has said his favorite justices are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, both of whom have voted consistently to limit abortion rights. And in Texas, he has signed every law limiting abortion access that has come to his desk.

'Women Have Split Tickets'

What will the hard-line stance mean for Republican women who support abortion rights? "For a long time now, a lot of pro-choice Republican women have split tickets," said Planned Parenthood's Crockett. "When the message comes that they could not include us in any way, it's difficult to do anything else."

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