The Republicans' "big tent" would have crumpled with adoption of a rule barring campaign money for any party candidate who doesn't go along with a ban on late-term abortions. Fortunately for the two-party system, GOP leaders had the good sense to parry that thrust from the party's right last weekend at a Republican National Committee meeting in California.
Republicans' institutional opposition to abortion has been stated and restated in the party's platform for years. But the party has avoided moves that would enforce discipline on this issue - thus keeping doors open for pro-choice politicians like Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, and Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. The withholding of party money would have slammed the door in their faces.
The party's leadership is wise to stay as close to the middle ground as they can. Late-term, or partial-birth abortion is a particular, narrow facet of the issue, and most Americans find this procedure objectionable. Even it, however, raises questions of freedom of choice in extreme circumstances.
Abortion, in general, remains a divisive and emotional issue, defined all too often by extreme views on both sides. It is possible to believe that abortion should not be used as a means of birth control and should be subject to regulation, particularly late in pregnancies, and yet reject its outright prohibition as an undue intrusion on women's rights and health-care providers' judgment. That's essentially what the courts have concluded.
And that middle ground is occupied by most Americans. Any political party would be wise not to forsake it. The moral judgment, staying within the law, that each individual reaches through prayer must be preserved.