Republicans Face Hot Battle On Abortion at Convention

FORCES on both sides of the abortion issue are squaring off for what promises to be the biggest battle in these parts since 1836, when Texans won independence from Mexico on the plain of San Jacinto.

That battle fizzled after 20 minutes. Next month's clash could boil across all 11 days of the Republican platform sessions and national convention, pitting anti-abortion contingents from around the country against a pro-choice army of 2,000 or more.

"The pro-choice community in Houston will mobilize in ... what is basically a military-style project" to protect abortion clinics, says Susan Nenney, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood's office here.

The anti-abortion group "Operation Rescue has been saying for months [that clinics] will be a major hit site for them," Ms. Nenney adds. "Rescue America has said that they'll be staging protests and clinic blockades. And we also expect to hear from the Lambs of Christ and the Missionaries to the Preborn, and probably other groups as well."

Monika Moreno, a spokeswoman for Operation Rescue of California, confirms that Operation G.O.P. (for Guard Our Preborns) will engage in picketing, "sidewalk counseling," prayer vigils, marches, and rallies.

Such anti-abortion activists will also stage "child-saving rescues" by blocking access to clinics. A Rescue America leaflet says they will "assume the vulnerability of the babies in the womb by being peacefully noncompliant during the rescue, and, if arrests follow, all the time in jail."

Another conflict over abortion - if it is allowed to occur - will be within the Republican platform sessions and maybe even on the convention floor. The party's staunch anti-abortion plank from 1988 - "the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed" - is rejected by 71 percent of Republicans, according to a 1991 poll. Two women, two views

The division within the party is illustrated by two of its female congressional candidates in Texas. Dolly McKenna of Houston is an entrepreneur, wife, and mother of two. Capt. Donna Peterson, who is single, was one of West Point's first female graduates, has been a helicopter test pilot, and is now a business consultant in east Texas. Like President Bush, both candidates belong to an Episcopal church.

"I'm pro-choice because I don't want government regulation," Mrs. McKenna says. "To me, that's all a consistent issue. I want to keep the government out of the boardroom and the bedroom."

Captain Peterson, in contrast, says: "Abortion [is] murder and conception the beginning of life. I have a hard time even with the exceptions for rape and incest. What we're attempting to do in the Republican Party is to reverse Roe v. Wade and make abortion illegal."

That attitude pervades the party hierarchy because "pro-choice Republicans like myself in the '80s really didn't care," says Ann Stone, chairwoman of Republicans for Choice. Believing that Roe was untouchable, she says, "none of us bothered to speak up." The 1989 Webster decision, which began the erosion of the Roe decision, galvanized pro-choice Republicans. Party won't listen

Now the party won't listen. At their recent state convention in Texas, Republicans adopted a "fundamental individual right to life" plank without a fight. Even though pro-choice advocates had collected enough signatures to force a vote, Stone says, the party chairman used his prerogative "to just flat-out ignore them."

"That's the way the party has dealt with this issue," Stone says. "They figure that if you don't talk about it, it will go away."

But her group wants a hearing during the platform sessions. "Any dialogue is going to be better than none. But quite frankly, most of the arrangements as to whether we win or lose will be made before we walk in that room," she admits.

If shunned, choice advocates could raise the issue at the convention, with the backing of six state delegations. However, the convention chairman could refuse to recognize the spokesmen for those states.

"One of our problems is, a loose-lipped media flack for another group let people know what our likely states are," Stone says. She doesn't yet know the extent of the damage to this strategy.

Stone warns that Republican women have shown themselves willing to defect en masse if the party doesn't change. In Texas, a state that Democratic nominee Bill Clinton must win to become president, "Republican women elected [Democrat] Ann Richards," she says. "Choice is one of those women's issues that [her Republican opponent] handed to her on a silver platter."

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