ABORTION has zoomed to the top of the political agenda. And the message is not lost on the nation's governors, who are attending the 81st annual meeting of the National Governors' Association. Tough legislative battles over abortion are expected in at least four states this fall. It is already a topic in the two governors' races this year: Virginia and New Jersey. In 1990, it is almost certain to be a political hot potato in the 35 states with governors' races.
These elections will provide a clear signal about where many Americans stand on the issue. But two things are already becoming clear in the wake of the US Supreme Court's important July 3 decision on abortion: 1) national and state-level politicians will no longer be able to dodge the issue and, 2) once state legislatures begin to hammer out laws on abortion, the most likely result will be a legislative compromise that will satisfy neither ideological extreme.
What does it mean, after all, to be pro-choice? Does it mean that one rejects every restriction on abortion? Will an anti-abortion supporter accept some forms of abortion beyond limited exemptions in the case of rape, incest, and danger to the mother's health?
The give-and-take of the legislative process is likely to create some sort of middle ground in the continental divide that separates anti-abortion from pro-choice activists.
Illinois Gov. James Thompson would like to do away with those labels altogether.
``The issues within the abortion question are ones that have to be addressed,'' says Dave Fields, the governor's press secretary, but the labels are too simplistic to accurately represent the actual dilemmas. The pro-choice marchers outside the conference last weekend seemed to underscore that point, passing out literature that differentiated governors and legislatures as moderate or strong advocates of a particular position.
The governors are clearly in the limelight on the issue. As long as the Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision went unchallenged, political candidates could pacify anti-abortion supporters with statements of opposition to abortion while avoiding doing anything about it. But the high court's Webster decision has thrown the issue to the states. And unless the court makes a dramatic shift away from Roe v. Wade this fall, the states will play the leading role in crafting some sort of compromise.
Some pro-choice supporters don't see it that way. Although they concede a few likely losses this fall as states such as Florida, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania move to restrict abortions, they foresee a backlash of pro-choice voters at the polls.
``It's only the Webster case that has really brought home to people how much of a danger there is,'' says Karen Shields, a board member of the National Abortion Rights Action League. ``People used to give us $50. Now, it's $5,000.'' In fact, Illinois may not enact abortion restrictions as she once feared, she says. ``A year ago, I would have said yes. Now, I am not sure.''
As evidence of this shift, pro-choice supporters point to the New Jersey governor's race, where ardent anti-abortion supporter Jim Courter, the Republican nominee, is playing down the importance of the abortion issue. He trails pro-choice candidate, Democrat James Florio, by several percentage points.
``The silence is deafening,'' adds Michigan Gov. James Blanchard of anti-abortion supporters in his state. ``I have a feeling that they are going to be more timid and cautious than before.'' A tough legislative battle over abortion is expected this fall, although the pro-choice Mr. Blanchard has always vetoed anti-abortion bills and succeeded in sustaining those vetoes.
Florida, though, is taking a different tack that many states may follow to some degree or another.
``I want to better balance the rights of babies and unborn children,'' says Gov. Bob Martinez (R), a staunch anti-abortion supporter. He has called a special session of the legislature for Oct. 10 to Oct. 13 to consider the abortion issue.
On the face of it, Florida voters are pro-choice. A recent Miami Herald poll reiterated for Florida what national polls have showed all along: Most voters don't want the landmark Roe v. Wade decision overturned.
But ``it depends on how you poll it,'' Governor Martinez says. His own polls suggest majority support for various abortion restrictions, along the lines of the Missouri law that was upheld by the Supreme Court. Although he personally would like to go further on abortion restrictions, he says the politics of his state wouldn't allow it.
Martinez and several other governors expect abortion to be an issue in the 1990 races, but they doubt that it will create a wave of single-issue voters or candidates.
``My own hope is that no elections are won or lost on that,'' says outgoing New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean. ``It will be one of the issues that people will consider - and it ought to be. But it's only one [issue]. People recognize that there are shades of gray.''
Governor Kean went on to state: ``There will be no change in the law while I am governor.'' But when asked about the possibility of parental notification when a minorwants an abortion, he quickly amended his statement to ``no major change'' in the state's abortion laws. And a new shade of gray was born.