A GOP Fault Line

Some of the Republican faithful, notably presidential candidate Bob Dole, may have preferred to let the abortion issue lie undisturbed in the background as they geared up for their August convention. But that was not to be.

California Gov. Pete Wilson, representing the party's moderates, let it be known last week that he'd like to jettison the 20-year-old plank in the Republican platform that endorses a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion. His sympathies are shared by many other prominent Republicans.

A hint of willingness to give a bit on abortion surfaced from another, unexpected source. Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said over the weekend he might reluctantly consider an exception to an outright ban if a woman's life is in danger - but only in matters of legislation, not the GOP platform. Still, even this wisp of flexibility could encourage party moderates hopeful of altering the abortion plank.

No such hints come from others on the Republican right. Pat Buchanan asserted that any change in wording would be a sellout. And the Republican platform chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, has indicated he's not interested in new wording.

Wilson and colleagues believe the stridently pro-life platform makes a mockery of the party's "big tent" aspirations, repelling the large majority of voters who, polls show, favor limited access to abortion, at least in cases where a woman's life may be endangered or rape or incest is involved.

Not surprisingly, those on the other side of this divide make a similar argument. It's the party's unequivocal stand against abortion, they say, that brings in blue-collar, ethnic, and religious voters - people who used to gravitate to the Democrats.

Without question, ardent foes of abortion give the GOP grass-roots energy. They are a minority, but one with disproportionate clout. Party leaders are loathe to alienate them by tinkering with the abortion plank. Mr. Dole's own fervor for the issue is already in doubt with many on the GOP right.

Yet Wilson, et al., have a point. How many in America's broad middle ground of voters are put off by that plank? Most Americans favor choice, but are uneasy about unlimited use of abortions. They reject the black-and-white, absolutist alternatives favored by activists on either side.

In a year when Republican candidates will be fighting against Democratic ads and speeches characterizing them as "Gingrichite" extremists, they don't need the added burden of an extreme stand on abortion.

The party would do well to listen to its moderates and adjust its stand to reflect the concerns of a greater number of Americans.

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