Anti-abortion groups bent on bringing issue directly to the public

Advocates of a woman's right to choose abortion appear to have come out on top in the latest legal and political skirmishes on the issue. But both sides expect the battle to become more heated when anti-abortion forces launch a new drive against abortion next year. In an effort to bypass the courts and the politicians, abortion opponents are planning to take their case to the American public via local referendums. The Christian Action Council, a pro-life activist group with affiliates in 50 states, announced Wednesday that, in cities and towns across the country, it will try to introduce ballot questions asking voters whether the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion should be overturned.

It's an approach that abortion foes tried for the first time in elections this week; but it failed. In three New England towns, ballots included this question: ``Should the decision by the Supreme Court regarding abortion be overturned?'' In all three cases, a majority of voters said ``no.''

But in Bristol, Conn., leaders of anti-abortion groups say they are pleased to have won 45 percent of the vote. The Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney of the New Covenant Church, who came up with the idea of a local referendum on abortion, says the vote shows that the anti-abortion movement has a broader base of support than pro-choice activists like to admit.

The referendum should also convince legislators that the pro-life movement is a viable constituency, and it offers a valuable tool in building strong support at the grass-roots level, he says.

The Rev. Mr. Mahoney, a self-described liberal and a registered Democrat, says the pro-life movement in the past 12 years has not been effective in involving the public, focusing instead on boosting pro-life candidates into office.

``[We] felt there had to be a way to reach the public, without hassling women or using violent means, like bombing abortion clinics, to do it,'' he says. ``We decided on the referendum because it's nonviolent, it's educational, and it's, well, it's voting, which is the American way.''

Mahoney's opponents, on the other hand, criticize the new strategy of putting abortion referendums on municipal ballots. ``It's inappropriate to put this kind of question, which is so private and so personal, before the public on a referendum,'' says Catherine Blinder, campaign manager for Citizens Against Referendum 1 in Bristol.

``It's a waste of public money to vote on things that are nonbinding, that can have no impact,'' agrees Nanette Falkenberg, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League. ``Essentially, it's a public-opinion survey.'' But, she adds: ``If we can beat them in Bristol [a working-class city where the majority of citizens are Roman Catholic], we can beat them in lots of other places.''

Next year's ballots, in at least three states, will include questions that ``can have a real impact,'' Ms. Falkenberg says. In California, Oregon, and Massachusetts, voters will decide whether to prohibit the spending of public funds for abortions. ``If we lose those, the state constitutions will be changed,'' she says.

The votes coincided with arguments heard Tuesday by the United States Supreme Court on two major abortion cases. While lawyers did not suggest that the court should overrule its 1973 decision, they urged the justices to uphold Pennsylvania and Illinois laws that would restrict abortions under certain conditions.

The Pennsylvania law requires that women seeking abortions in that state be advised about the risks and possible detrimental effects. The Illinois law prohibits doctors from carrying out an abortion of a ``viable'' fetus, or one that is capable of living outside the womb. Advances in medical technology make it possible to sustain a fetus at a much earlier stage in its development, clouding the court's guideline that a ``viable'' fetus is one in the last trimester of development.

Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard professor and constitutional lawyer, says he doubts the current US Supreme Court is inclined to undertake a sweeping review of its rulings on abortion. The court reaffirmed a woman's constitutional right to an abortion as recently as 1983, he notes.

Further, the court refused to make time for US Solicitor General Charles Fried, who speaks for the Reagan administration, to present arguments at Tuesday's hearing. ``If there were any inclination for a broad review, the administration would have been invited to participate,'' Professor Tribe says.

While the time is not ripe now, he adds, ``The Reagan administration has made it clear that [a judge's] standing on the [abortion] issue will be a top consideration in the appointment of federal judgeships and Supreme Court vacancies, if any should arise.''

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