Abortion Issue Clouds Outlook for GOP in 1990 Series: Campaign '90. Part 22 of a Series

Article excerpt

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. …