Abortion threatens Republican revival : LEADING ARTICLE

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The Independent Online
An uncomprehending outside world looks on in amazement at the passions that the abortion issue still stirs in the US. Twenty-two years have passed since the Supreme Court upheld a woman's right to have an abortion. Yet just yesterday a pro-life fanatic went on trial in Massachusetts, accused of shooting dead workers at two family-planning clinics in Boston last December. Now, with the nomination of Dr Henry Foster to be the US Surgeon-General, the issue is back at political centre-stage, and promises to become a potent factor in the 1996 Presidential campaign.

The controversy erupted after the revelation that, during a long and distinguished medical career, Dr Foster had performed a few dozen abortions. At first the row seemed to be just one more self-inflicted disaster by a chronically disorganized White House. But, thanks to sloppy staff work, a beleaguered Bill Clinton may unwittingly have struck political gold.

Whether Dr Foster will be confirmed is anyone's guess. But the filling of a not especially important job is as nothing compared to the severe bout of turbulence that has struck the Republicans' smooth glide towards recapturing the Presidency. Without careful handling it could yet split the party, as it did so fatally in 1992.

That summer, the social conservatives who seized control of the Republican convention forced a sweeping anti-abortion provision into the official party platform. The zealots, however, forgot that, as poll after poll shows, seven out of 10 Americans agree with the Supreme Court, as Mr Clinton himself put it the other day, that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare". The harsh platform language, and the impression it fostered of an intolerant and extremist Republican party, cost votes among women and moderates that may have been decisive in losing the election for George Bush. This time, Republican leaders tacitly agreed, abortion would be kept out of the campaign altogether.

At which point, enter Ralph Reed, director of the Christian Coalition and chief spokesman of the ferociously pro-life religious Right. Not only should Dr Foster's nomination be withdrawn, Mr Reed declared at the weekend, but his movement would also refuse to back any Republican ticket that contains a supporter of abortion rights. This would effectively disqualify such attractive candidates as the "Three Ws" Governors (Weld of Massachusetts, Whitman of New Jersey and Wilson of California). It could even cast doubt on the Right's loyalty to Senator Bob Dole, who is also a subscriber to the "safe, legal and rare" school, although he could never admit as much.

Come the Presidential election proper, Mr Reed and his followers will of course vote Republican. But during the primaries, in which the religious Right has disproportionate weight, it could tilt the balance to a less electable conservative. In short, with Henry Foster, Mr Clinton may have blundered into a winner.