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Middle ground on abortion eludes GOP Neither side budges in platform clash


SALT LAKE CITY -- Republican supporters and opponents of abortion rights clashed heatedly if briefly before the party's platform committee here without finding any common ground.

"I don't see these sides coming together," said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the committee chairman, as the hearing moved on to another topic.

The hour of testimony from four Republicans on each side of the question was a largely predictable recital of views they have expressed repeatedly in the past. And when Mr. Nickles sought to find some common ground, he was rebuffed by both sides.

Asked by Mr. Nickles if she would accept any "restrictions" on abortion, Ann Stone of Republicans for Choice replied that "the first question" requiring an answer would be about who would make the decision on abortion, the woman or the government. Added Mary Dent Crisp of the National Republican Coalition for Choice: "I support the principle of Roe. . . . We're talking about a fundamental right to choose."

When Mr. Nickles persisted in his questioning, Ms. Stone said she shared the goals of trying to elect more Republicans and reduce the number of abortions. "But why does it have to be done with legislation?" she asked. "That's the way Democrats solve things."

To which Phyllis Schlafly of the Republican National Coalition for Life replied: "I think that it's going to be pretty clear that the pro-abortion people are not going to be appeased by any kind of compromise."

The abortion-rights advocates are seeking changes in the Republican platform, which in both 1984 and 1988 endorsed a constitutional amendment to forbid abortion, opposed public funding for any abortions and favored appointing only abortion opponents to the federal bench. But the White House and President Bush's campaign advisers already have made it clear that no changes will be allowed and that the issue will be kept off the convention floor in Houston in August.

Ms. Stone was telling reporters that she had lined up support from four of the six state delegations required to bring the issue to the floor. But other sources said only Massachusetts and perhaps Connecticut would be inclined that way. And Republicans in both states will be under heavy pressure to avoid anything that would embarrass the president when he is being nominated for a second term.

Although abortion critics repeatedly claimed what Ms. Schlafly called the "high moral ground" on the emotional issue, most of the argument centered on the political merits of the two positions. Ms. Schlafly claimed that the Republicans won the White House with Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush by taking "a strong stand for the legal protection of all human life including those who are most defenseless, unborn babies."

Ms. Schlafly made it clear that the far right of the party is unwilling to bend. "The millions of Americans who are motivated by high moral principle will not stand for President Bush saying that he is personally pro-life while the platform is mushed up to appease the same crowd that runs the Democratic Party."

But Ms. Crisp was equally adamant. She argued that the rigid position against abortion was costing Republicans the support of young people and women who "will simply either leave the party or cross over and vote for a pro-choice Democrat."

"We are saying to the party leadership: 'Don't threaten us. Don't appeal to us with the same old party loyalty ploy, to silence us,' " she said. "We will not be gagged . . . anti-choice is bad politics and anti-choice is losing politics."

Ms. Stone added that "the current platform is a loser."

Much of the dispute centered on interpretations of apparently contradictory polling results. If there is a consensus in the poll-taking community, it holds that a majority of Americans are opposed to abortion but also opposed to government intervention in the decision.

Although the confrontation had been ballyhooed for weeks, it was carried off without causing much stir in this conservative city. At noon, the anti-abortion forces won a victory in the battle of rallies, gathering 150 or so adults, many with children, across from the Marriott Hotel where the hearings were held. At the same time, the abortion-rights group a half block away numbered only 25 or 30 at best before thunderstorms ended both.

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