FOR the third time in two years, the American Bar Association is agonizing over whether to remain neutral in the abortion debate or jump into the fray with a stand advocating abortion rights.
In 1990 the 370,000-member group took a position in favor of a woman's right to an abortion. Six months later, after an outpouring of protest, the ABA rescinded that vote in favor of neutrality.
At the group's annual convention this week in San Francisco, the ABA's 520-member House of Delegates is to vote on a resolution opposing state and federal efforts to restrict a woman's right to an abortion.
Supporters say the association, which represents half the nation's lawyers, cannot retain its credibility if it remains mute on one of the most debated social and legal issues of the day.
"We'll be harmed if we don't take a position on this issue," outgoing ABA president Talbot D'Alemberte told reporters as the convention got under way last week.
Neutrality on the issue, Mr. D'Alemberte said, "betrays our tradition of being involved where justice issues are concerned."
Other supporters say if the group doesn't support abortion it could lose thousands of women members.
"For women, this has become almost a litmus issue," said Massachusetts delegate Alice Richmond.
But opponents say taking a stand would hurt the group's credibility, drive out some members who disagree, and further polarize the issue.
"I'm apprehensive about the American Bar becoming an advocacy group with single-issue lobbies," said Darrell Jordan, a delegate from Texas. "It will ultimately cost us our credibility.
"Most people feel their view on abortion is private. Neutrality allows that," he said.
On Thursday the group's board of governors voted 15 to 11 to send the resolution, without a recommendation, to the House of Delegates, its policymaking body. The House will vote on the issue Tuesday, one day after a nonbinding ballot is taken by the assocation's ABA Assembly.