Leading Article: A dangerous issue for Bush . . .

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THERE is no shortage of issues that could lose George Bush the presidential elections in November. It could be the stagnant state of the economy; generalised irritation with his inarticulacy, lack of leadership and failure to grapple with America's social ills; continuing doubts about his judgement, symbolised by his running mate J Danforth Quayle; or the perennially emotive issue of abortion. Abortion is to the Republicans what loss of sovereignty via Brussels is to British Conservatives: an issue that threatens to split the party down the middle. It is expected to cause serious damage to the Republican reputation for unity at this week's Houston convention. It provoked demonstrations there yesterday.

Republicans who believe that women should be able to choose whether or not to have an abortion reckon they represent more than 70 per cent of party members. Yet the party's right wing has forced on to the platform agenda a call for a change to the Constitution that would ban abortion. Barbara Bush has said she believes abortion 'should not be in there, either pro or con'; and Barry Goldwater, a Republican presidential candidate in 1964 and an icon of the right, has warned that the 'anti-choice' Republican stance will lose the election. Eight of twelve Republican congresswomen back the right to abortion. Betty Ford, wife of President Gerald Ford, is prominent in a new group called Republicans for Choice.

The passion the issue arouses in the United States is extraordinary. Opinion polls show that although four out of five Americans support legalised abortion, most view the subject with the same kind of complex and mixed emotions that it arouses here. It should be legal, but as a form of contraception they feel it is morally wrong. Those favouring abortion on demand, and those wanting more restrictions tend to be evenly balanced. None of that ambivalence can be detected in the violent clashes between the pro and anti camps: the former screaming such slogans as 'Keep your rosaries off our ovaries', the latter demonstrating outside and sometimes even attempting to raid abortion clinics.

The American woman's constitutional right to an abortion was established in the Supreme Court ruling of 1973, known as Roe v Wade. The anti-abortion lobby hoped it would be overturned in a long-awaited judgment by the same court this June. In the event, the judges endorsed the right of Pennsylvania state to introduce certain restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period between a woman seeing a doctor and having an abortion. But by a majority of five to four, they clung to the principle of Roe v Wade. A second Bush term would be likely to see additional anti-abortion judges appointed to the court - as the Democrats will not be slow to point out in the election campaign.

President Bush has committed himself to the anti-abortion camp. But when asked what he would do if an adult granddaughter told him she was going to have an abortion, his typically opaque answer seemed to imply he would support her in her decision. That may have been an exercise in damage limitation. Yet nothing he or his wife says can obscure the fact that on this issue the Republican Party is the prisoner of its hardliners. If President Bush goes down to Bill Clinton in November, that surrender is likely to attract a large slice of the blame.