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Fight Over Roe, Turning 30, Is More Politically Sober

The White House asks that friends and foes of the abortion-rights ruling 'coalesce around shared concerns.'

January 23, 2003|Elizabeth Levin and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — On the 30th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade, the White House signaled Wednesday that it will try for "common ground" between those on either side of the wrenching debate over legalized abortion.

The comments by a top White House official came as thousands of demonstrators gathered here in subfreezing temperatures to mark the high court ruling and to gear up for a political fight over the future of abortion.

After decades of marching on Washington, leaders of the March for Life proclaimed that efforts to overturn the Supreme Court ruling would soon prove successful. With Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress, and speculation about Supreme Court vacancies to come, their rhetoric flared with the prospect of upending the fragile majority that supports the court decision.

"Now, we're on final approach," former Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) told 50,000 marchers gathered on the National Mall. "We have a pro-life president and a pro-life Senate. It's been a bumpy road. Now, it's a new day. We will prevail."

In a broadcast hookup, President Bush spoke to the crowd while in St. Louis, where he had gone to pitch his economic plan, but he did not mention the Roe decision by name. Voicing his support for banning so-called partial-birth abortions and human cloning, Bush spoke instead about the need to "protect the rights of children yet to be born."

White House top political strategist Karl Rove later told reporters that both sides should coalesce around shared concerns -- such as counseling for teenagers and better adoption practices -- before engaging on the more fundamental debate about abortion.

"Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, there's a desire to find common ground," he said. Mentioning the bills outlawing late-term abortions and human cloning, Rove said, "Let's get those victories before we start prognostications about things that may be years in the future."

The temperate White House tone was of little comfort to groups favoring abortion rights, who fear that a new GOP majority will send women back to an era of illegal abortions and desperate deaths. Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal vowed a fierce fight against any Supreme Court nominee who opposes abortion. "We are determined to protect Roe," she said in one of the day's many counter-events held, in the backers' words, to celebrate the ruling's empowerment of women to make their own reproductive decisions. "President Bush does not have a mandate to overturn Roe."

With the stage set for dissension over the abortion views of any Supreme Court nominees, many marchers seemed as cautious as the White House about predicting a watershed in abortion politics.

Carol Wilkerson, 49, of Alexandria, Va., said she attended Wednesday's rally because she wants African American women to be counted in the anti-abortion campaign. She said she does not think Roe will be overturned because there are too many people who support it.

"I think President Bush is on our side, but he is the president of all Americans and that includes those who are pro-choice," she said.

One reason for the conciliatory tone may be public opinion. According to the Gallup Poll, which has been tracking the issue for three decades, support for making abortion legal "under some circumstances" has consistently stayed above 50%.

"As the national Republican Party gains more power in Washington, the pro-choice side may sense more of a vulnerability," said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "But my sense is that for the time being, we're fighting at the margins. Basically, with Republicans in charge, it's going to affect family-planning funds, the availability of condoms, late-term abortions."

Bert Gaffney, 73, of Jay, N.Y., said he has been coming to the anniversary march since 1989. Although the GOP now controls both houses of Congress and the White House, Gaffney also lacked optimism about the march's impact. "The politicians in the past have not been so helpful, so we'll just keep our fingers crossed," he said.

The battle for public opinion was not confined to rallies and news conferences in Washington and elsewhere throughout the nation. Both sides also made a special appeal to young adults, hoping to corral the next generation of supporters. Web-site chat rooms and campus-organizing campaigns were popular outreach tools. And abortion opponents hosted a Rock for Life concert Tuesday night, complete with Christian punk rockers.

As they have done for many years, those who oppose abortion sought to portray its grim medical realities in graphic displays. Gregg Cunningham, 55, came to Wednesday's rally to show students billboard-sized images of aborted fetuses and embryos.

Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, has attended the March for Life rally for the last four years because he believes the images "move students beyond thinking of abortion as a choice."

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