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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2000

Battle continues for abortion rights activists

COLUMBUS - Six months ago, Michelle Montagno was among a dozen activists who stood shivering in an alley behind an abortion clinic here.

Ms. Montagno, an organizer for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League of Ohio, and the others gathered for a news conference on the 27th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

Their message was if the Democratic nominee is defeated this year, Roe vs. Wade likely will be overturned. The next president is expected to appoint two to three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

They also said that the two GOP front-runners - George W. Bush and John McCain - were not "moderates" on the abortion rights issue.

In Iowa, Republican candidates Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer were accusing Mr. Bush of being evasive about what he would do as president to halt legal abortions.

So it did not surprise Ms. Montagno that Mr. Bush last week chose a running mate who has deeply rooted anti-abortion credentials - former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, a former congressman from Wyoming.

Ms. Montagno said she never thought Mr. Bush's reference to "compassionate conservatism" would ever involve a change in his opposition to a woman's right to choose an abortion.

As the Republican National Convention begins tomorrow in Philadelphia, abortion rights activists face another uphill battle to scrap the GOP's platform that supports a constitutional ban on all abortions and a mandate that appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court oppose abortion rights. Mr. Bush has said the platform language should not be changed.

"George W. is still trying to come across as moderate, but he is anti-choice and he needs to align himself politically with his supporters, who are being really loud right now," Ms. Montagno said.

Mark Lally, the legislative director of the Ohio Right to Life Society, said Mr. Bush made the right call in choosing Mr. Cheney.

"I felt [Bush's] position on abortion was clear and it would probably be simpler to pick someone who shared his views on the issue," he said.

If Mr. Bush's choice of a running mate who is opposed to abortion was not a surprise, what state Auditor Jim Petro did last week stunned Ms. Montagno and pleased Mr. Lally.

Mr. Petro revealed he had changed his position on abortion.

He was considered "pro-choice" in the 1994 and 1998 statewide election because he opposed restrictions on abortion in the first three months of a woman's pregnancy. Now, he says he could support banning abortions during that timeframe unless the mother's life is endangered or she became pregnant from incest or rape.

The political question is how Mr. Petro's new abortion stance may play out in the 2002 GOP primary for state attorney general.

Mr. Petro may be challenged by state Treasurer Joe Deters, a strident abortion opponent who is an ex-Hamilton County prosecutor.

When state officeholders don't have much to say, it usually means a lot.

Mr. Deters restricted his comment on Mr. Petro's flip-flop to: "I have always been strongly pro-life, and I would never change such a deeply held conviction."

One GOP official said abortion foes will be skeptical of Mr. Petro the same way they cast a wary eye at presidential candidate Steve Forbes when he supported Christine Todd Whitman for governor of New Jersey. Ms. Whitman is "pro choice" on abortion. But when Mr. Forbes spoke out against abortion in this year's campaign and movement leaders backed him, much of the skepticism subsided.

Mr. Petro must try the same approach, the GOP official said.

"It's a long road. He made a start. The pro-life people have to believe that you're sincere, and it takes a long time to convince them of that. But if they do, they have a core group of volunteers and activists who will go the ends of a state to advocate your cause," the official said.

Jim Drew is chief of The Blade's Columbus bureau.



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