The first of three White House Conference on Families weathered an angry walkout by anti-abortion forces last weekend and voted for 57 proposals aimed at helping the American family.
In the final tally, the delegates voted by more than 3 to 2 for legalized abortion, backed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by 4 to 1, and approved by a one-vote margin a proposal that included legal protection for homosexuals.
Despite predictions that the conference would be bogged down over these emotional issues, the delegates also found ample middle ground. They gave overwhelming approval to programs to prevent drug and alcohol abuse; to aid to the elderly and handicapped; to bolster child care; and showed more willingness to consider joint custody for children in divorce.
At least half of the proposals called for increased government spending and tax cuts. By a large majority the conference voted to end the so-called "marriage tax" that under current income tax laws causes two-career married couples to pay more than unmarried couples who lived together.
The conference also called for allowing federal aid to the elderly to have nursing care in their own homes instead of a nursing home.
Although the delegates defeated one proposal for a guaranteed income, they backed income tax credits for families with children who have an income below the US Bureau of Labor Statistics "lower living standard."
More than 670 delegates -- some coming in wheelchairs, some speaking Spanish, and about 30 percent overall from minority groups -- came from the eastern US to the three- day event in Baltimore. Midwesterners will meet in Minneapolis later this month, and Los Angeles will host the final conference in July.
An estimated 50 abortion foes, allied under the Pro-Family Coalition, stalked out of the Baltimore meeting the second day (June 6). The group, led by Virginia delegate Connie Marshner, charged that the conference had been "rigged" from the beginning to block their viewpoint, which included opposition to abortion, gay rights, and the ERA.
Both President Carter, who spoke to the meeting the first day, and conference chairman Jim Guy Tucker, a former congressman from Arkansas, called on the delegates to avoid controversy and seek areas of agreement.
One of the most emotional issues, how to define a family, did not reach the final voting session. A subgroup debated the issue, with conservatives defining a family as a group related by marriage, blood, or legal custody while others, including a gay rights spokesman, called for defining a family as any group that shares common values and a commitment to the future. Neither group could muster a majority and the issue was left unresolved.
The most controversial proposal in the final voting included a call to ratify the ERA, end discrimination based on sexual preference, and guarantee the right to choose abortion. This recommendation won by only one vote out of 583 ballots cast.
A national task force is expected to take a proposal from the Baltimore meeting and the next two conferences and compile a final report in August as a guide for future policies and laws. The three conferences, which came out of a campaign promise by Mr. Carter in 1976, are budgeted at $3 million.
Was the conference successful? Massachusetts delegate Collette Roberts, who described herself as a mother of four and a feminist, said, "I'm afraid the resolutions will come out of here and not be voted on."
Fellow Massachusetts delegate Marion Kelleher, a prolife advocate, said that although she didn't walk out as about 15 of her delegation did, "I came convinced that everything was preordained," adding, "I feel everyone came here expecting the government to do everything for them."
Carol Bellamy, president of New York's City Council and a delegate, said that she would like to see the federal government spend more money on domestic programs. But she added that she realized that in carrying out the White House conference proposals "the dollars are a real problem. . . . There is no money tree." However, Miss Bellamy said that the conference had been a success because its job was to "articulate the direction of policy" and that government officials will implement those that are practical.