Abortion strains unity of state GOP


HOUSTON -- In the Holiday Inn lobby, in front of an ad hoc audience of convention delegates and others, Maryland's Republican Party chairwoman and its highest-ranking public official had a shouting match.

The issue, once again, was abortion.

Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, wanted the issue debated on the convention floor. She wanted Maryland to agree to be one of the six states needed to win approval for that debate.

"The hell we will," said Joyce L. Terhes, the party chairwoman and a member of the committee that wrote the party's anti-abortion platform statement.

Ms. Terhes prevailed, but the victory gave her little joy. Personally, she would permit abortion in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother's life. But for political reasons, she stifled her opposition to the party platform's call for a complete ban on abortions.

"It would show disunity that we cannot afford in the position we're in, with the president so far behind," she said.

She knows that abortion will continue to present an agonizing dilemma, particularly in her traditionally moderate state.

And this year the problem is more complicated for Ms. Terhes. The Maryland GOP must try to win a second term for President Bush while, at the same time, coping with an abortion referendum on the Maryland general election ballot. The referendum will test Maryland's comparatively liberal 1991 law on abortion.

Beyond the personal anguish of disagreeing with each other or with their party's platform, Ms. Terhes says the referendum poses two major political problems:

Campaign workers on both sides could spend more time working for or against the abortion law than they do for Mr. Bush.

And if the referendum energizes a legion of abortion rights voters, it could draw out more Marylanders who will oppose the anti-abortion President Bush.

What is even more vexing for Maryland Republicans such as state Sen. Howard A. Denis of Montgomery County is the conviction that the party has hurt itself unnecessarily.

"It should be easy politically to be where the people are, where our party's members are on this issue. We should have adopted a centrist, moderate position," he said. While the national party frets about its anti-abortion right wing, it abandons the broader center, he said.

The risk of a more moderate position, he said, is that part of the Republican coalition, namely its right wing, might not vote. But a broader coalition could be cemented with what he regards as a more reasonable position.

Baltimore's Republican Party chairman, David Blumberg, said he stopped thinking about abortion when he realized not even his own, more moderate state would support a more moderate plank -- or even a debate on that position.

"If moderation is not possible in Maryland, it probably is not possible anywhere. Both parties are too far out on the extremes. I'm afraid the platform could alienate 70 percent of the electorate," he said.

Mr. Blumberg thinks that a majority of the Maryland delegation is pro-choice but that they would not vote to change the platform.

"They don't think it will help much in the long run. I'm disappointed, but I understand the political reality of it," he said.

Barbara Taylor, wife of the Maryland Republican Party's national committeeman, Richard Taylor, supports permitting abortion in certain cases. But she backs the platform because she thinks it has proven to be a "winning" document virtually unchanged from 1988.

"To change now," she said, citing a common concern, "would create another situation where the president is waffling. I don't think we could support more waffling."

Other members of the delegation, like Brenda Butscher, are true believers in the party platform.

Mrs. Butscher, who chairs the Garrett County GOP, says she is opposed to abortion for religious and intensely personal reasons.

Her children were adopted, and she remembers hearing her late husband say, while rocking one of their new daughters, how grateful he was that these babies had been carried to term.

Some members of the party are hoping they can have it both ways. They hope that what they regard as a radical platform will be forgotten -- or that Barbara Bush's position will be remembered.

Mrs. Taylor and numerous other Marylanders say they agree with the first lady, who said before the convention that abortion was an issue of personal choice that did not belong in a political platform.

"It's very troubling to me," said Carol A. Arscott, who chairs the Howard County Republican Party, "that people on the far extremes of this issue are permitted to control the debate."

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