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Republicans in bid to repair rift as abortion returns to US agenda

Abortion is back on the US political agenda, with a damaging public split in the Republican Party and old arguments rekindled by the 25th anniversary of the judgment that made abortion a constitutional right. Even as the arguments rage, however, Mary Dejevsky in Washington finds signs that the tide of opinion may be turning.

The National Committee of the Republican Party, which approves policy and controls funds, was set for a bitter debate at its annual meeting in California yesterday, the like of which had not been seen in years. The issue was whether party funds should be used to support election candidates who do not subscribe to the party's out-and-out opposition to "partial birth abortion" - a technique for late abortion that critics regard as a particularly cruel form of infanticide.

Party policy is to have the procedure outlawed and two bills have been passed by Congress, only to be vetoed by President Clinton. Public opinion polls find that more than 80 per cent of Americans oppose the procedure. Pictures provided by lobbyists are gruesome.

A small minority of Congressmen and candidates on the liberal wing of the party, however, regard the hue and cry as the thin end of the anti- abortion wedge - a means of eventually drumming up enough support to remove women's right to abortion altogether - and steadfastly refuse to condemn it.

Last month, ardent foes of abortion petitioned the party's National Committee to have these "dissidents" deprived of central campaign funds, a sanction that could would impair, if not ruin, their election prospects. With the mid-term congressional elections to be held this autumn, the sanction was a real threat.

The campaign got up a head of steam before the Republican Party leadership sounded the alarm. The result was an emergency propaganda blitz appealing for party unity- inclusion not exclusion.

They argued that making attitudes to partial birth abortion a "litmus test" for obtaining central funds laid the party open to lobbying on other issues. How about a "litmus test" on other issues, like free trade? A litmus test for donors? There were whispers of Stalinism, democratic centralism and thought dictatorship. For the more traditional, patrician (and shrinking) wing of the party, there was the further consideration that abortion - even such a repellent practice as partial birth abortion - was a matter for individual conscience, not party politics.

Behind these objections, however, were other, practical, ones. A number of prominent congressional and local Republican candidates could risk defeat, not only because of inadequate funding, but because in some constituencies "pro-choice" voters might switch to the rival Democrat. Unspoken was the further consideration that the women's vote - which already favours the Democrats - could decline further. By yesterday, with television advertisements calling for Republican "inclusiveness" still running, the funding motion was confidently expected to fail, but it was a close call.

This defeat, and the practical considerations behind it, reinforced an impression that the vicious passion that has for so long fuelled the abortion debate in America may be starting to wane, along with the role of fundamentalist Christian movements in US politics.

Opinion polls conducted for the 25th anniversary of Roe v Wade - the Supreme Court ruling that gave US women the constitutional right, albeit limited, to an abortion - suggest something similar.

Although lobbyists on both sides use the polls, for their own reasons, to show that anti-abortion sentiment has hardened, this is not the whole story. The polls also show solid public support for the view that abortion should be a legal right. In other words, increased public censure co-exists with acceptance - an acceptance that could not be taken for granted 25 years ago.

The anniversary of Roe v Wade falls next week, and lobbyists on both sides have been enthusiastically fighting the old fights. But the real fear that stalked abortion clinics seems recently to have dissipated. Abortion doctors were unworried enough about their safety to hold an anniversary dinner dance last weekend.