Abortion issue thrown into political arena

The issue of abortion is now appealed from the United States' highest court to the even higher tribunal of American public opinion. The US Supreme Court's validation June 30 of a statutory ban on most federally financed abortions catapults the issue -- one of the most intimately private yet publicly controversial -- out of the hushed courtroom into the clamor of state, congressional, and presidential politics in the midst of a national election campaign.

Various objectives remain: to either annul the court ruling by legislation or enshrine it in a more sweeping amendment to the US Constitution, and to elect a president who will help do so.

Early soundings suggest that the nation may be as sharply divided on the issue as was the Supreme Court in its razor-thin 5-to-4 decision upholding a four-year-old congressional prohibition on medicaid-paid abortions for poor women (except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest).

Both sides already are mobilizing for the high-emotion battle for public support that looms ahead.

The victory-flushed anti-abortionists enter the political struggle with an edge in experience, manpower, and money. But abortion defenders -- who have been losing ground -- are fast reorganizing, and recently have begun to seize the offensive.

The so-called "right-to-life" (anti-abortion) movement, backed by millions of members recruited since the early 1970s, has boned its political skills in three previous federal election campaigns. Its trophies include claims of having been instrumental in defeating several congressional incumbents in 1978.

It has targeted for defeat this year nine US senators and nine representatives who support spending public funds for abortions.

The next two congressional elections may bring into office enough "pro-life" lawmakers to overcome Congress's long resistance to submitting to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment outlawing all abortions, claims Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R) of Illinois, author of the limited ban which the Supreme Court upheld this week.

The so-called "pro-choice" forces, meanwhile, are abandoning their traditionally low political profile.

They have poured more than $100,000 into 29 congressional races in 16 states so far this year, and plan to invest $250,000 by te November election in an effort to tap the votes of the 88 percent of the American electorate who, they contend, favors giving women a right to choose abortion.

Debate over another kind of choice -- among the positions of the presidential candidates on abortion-- also seems likely to be heated up by the court ruling.

The three major candidates stake out distinctly different stands on the issue , and abortion groups are lining up behind them accordingly.

"Pro-lifers" tend to back probable Republican nomnee Ronald Reagan, whose support for an antiabortion constitutional amendment won him the endorsement last week of the 10-million member National Right to Life Committee.

The most clearly "pro-choice" candidate is independent John B. anderson, who favors allowing women the option of aborting a pregnancy. His campaign has received $10,000 in contributions from the National Abortion Action Rights Action League.

President Carter occupies the middle ground, opposing abortion but also against a constitutional amendment prohibiting the practice.

With little more than 40 working days left before Congress adjourns for the fall elections -- and with an agenda already crammed with priority business -- the abortion issue appears likely to be aired on the campign trail before it generates any new legislative activity on Capitol Hill.

Substative action may come more quickly at the state level.

Twenty-two states now underwrite the cost of abortions for poor women, and may face prompt legal or legislative challenges as a result of the Supreme Court inclusion of state laws in its decision.

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