ABORTION has become the ``hot button'' issue of the 1990 elections. In Iowa, the abortion debate has dominated the race for governor and could eventually shape the outcome of a close contest for the US Senate.
In Louisiana, the state senate is expected to vote as early as Monday on the toughest anti-abortion law in the United States. The Louisiana House already approved it overwhelmingly.
In New York, a Roman Catholic cardinal stunned Catholic politicians by indicating they could be excommunicated for pro-choice policies.
All this political heat makes Republicans sweat. They've got a lot at stake this year politically - in Congress, governors' races, and hundreds of local campaigns. The abortion issue could explode Republicans' plans: Over the past decade they have wrapped themselves tightly in policies that were adamantly anti-abortion. George Bush ran for the White House on a plank that called for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion.
But the political climate changed overnight last July 3 when the US Supreme Court, voting 5-4, upheld a Missouri law restricting access to abortions.
The effect of that court decision on public opinion was dramatic. Anti-abortion forces have been weakened, while pro-choice forces have grown stronger.
A recent Gallup poll tells the story. It found ``the sharpest shift in 15 years'' on the abortion question. The number of people who now oppose abortion under all circumstances fell to the lowest level on record - just 12 percent.
Today, 84 percent of Americans support at least limited rights to abortion, Gallup says.
Politicians can read polls, and a number of Republicans are backing away from the adamant, anti-abortion positions that were once their party's hallmark.
New York Republicans made a dramatic reversal in the past month. Their new state platform advocates a clear pro-choice position. It says that government should avoid ``regulating people in their personal affairs and lives,'' and calls for supporting people's ``privacy and reproductive rights.''
Anti-abortion forces are counterattacking, but with mixed results.
Last week, Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, created a furor when he appeared to threaten Catholic politicians with excommunication if they supported abortion. In a 19,000-word article, Cardinal O'Connor wrote that Roman Catholics who ``help to multiply abortion by advocating legislation supporting abortion or by making public funds available for abortion ... are at the risk of excommunication.''
Two days later, the cardinal appeared to back away from that position: ``I have never threatened to excommunicate anybody,'' he told reporters. But he had already touched off a fusillade of criticism.
The New York Times protested that the cardinal's words risked ``tearing at the truce of tolerance that permits America's pluralistic democracy to work.''
Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal said the cardinal was taking direct aim at three New York Democrats - Gov. Mario Cuomo, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Rep. Charles Rangel - and threatening to drive Catholics from public office.
Governor Cuomo called the cardinal's remarks ``upsetting,'' but still vowed to support a woman's choice. Congressman Rangel said he could hardly believe the cardinal could issue such a ``mean-spirited statement.''
Political analysts say the Catholic hierarchy risks resurrecting old church-state issues that were supposedly settled in the 1960 election of Kennedy, America's first Roman Catholic president.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says the cardinal's statement may be a ``devise to put pressure on Catholic politicians. But if he carries it to its logical extreme, the church is courting disaster - a schism within the church [and eventually] an anti-Catholic backlash.'' Dr. Sabato says he doubts the cardinal would have acted without approval from Rome.
Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, suggests the cardinal may be motivated by ``frustration.'' Public opinion in the US, even among Catholics, is running contrary to many fundamental church doctrines.
The Rev. Richard McBrien, chairman of the theology department at Notre Dame University, seems to confirm Dr. Ornstein's theory. Times have changed since 1960, when Kennedy could separate public duty from religious duty, Fr. McBrien told an interviewer on ABC-TV. And unlike Pope John XXIII, who was presiding over the Catholic church in 1960, the current pope demands stricter obedience.
``I think Pope John Paul II does want his bishops to become tougher, to become more outspoken ... to lean more heavily on Catholics, especially Catholics in public life,'' McBrien says.
But Burt Neuborne, a New York University law professor quoted in the Washington Post, says O'Connor has revived the ``dual loyalty'' issue that troubled Kennedy's campaign. Says Mr. Neuborne: ``When you accept public office, you're not a Catholic, you're not a Jew. You're an American.''