SACRAMENTO, CALIF., JUNE 14 -- Leaders of the nation's largest antiabortion organization said today they plan to expand their precinct-by-precinct efforts in an attempt to blunt the resurgent strength of abortion-rights supporters in state legislatures.
Delegates to the annual convention of the National Right to Life Committee Inc., although acknowledging some defeats since the Supreme Court sent the abortion issue to the states a year ago, said they were heartened by recent electoral successes in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Idaho and California and eager to improve their grass-roots organizing techniques.
A pragmatic breeze seemed to blow through the group's lakeside hotel as leaders emphasized tactics such as attempting to limit abortions for birth control purposes or put restrictions on abortion for minors, despite complaints from some delegates that this would mean thousands of fetuses still would die.
Laws that ban some abortions "can lead up to the point of stopping them all," said the group's field coordinator, Scott Fischbach, responding to a delegate who objected to exceptions in an Idaho antiabortion bill. National Right to Life president J.C. Willke said "there's a certain shading of pragmatism" with which "I have no problem, but some people do."
Many of the 800 delegates to the 18th convention of the organization, which concentrates on education and political organizing, said they doubted they would ever succeed in their stated goal: banning all abortions except those that threaten the life of the woman. "But we have to take it step by step," said Barbara Craig, president of National Right to Life's Oregon affiliate.
A national pollster scheduled to address a convention workshop said the movement's best approach is a "salami" tactic, pushing for restrictions on sex-selection abortions or abortions for minors that most voters find offensive. Richard Ryan, senior vice president of Tarrance & Associates, said about 40 percent of Americans support abortion on demand and 30 percent want abortion banned. Antiabortion activists, he said, must focus on a middle group of about 30 percent who want abortion to remain legal but favor some limits.
In a telephone interview, National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) executive director Kate Michelman called this tactic "masking extremist legislation in moderate clothing." She said abortion-rights activists, despite recent successes, still lagged in organizing state legislatures and feared that passage of a major antiabortion bill by one state could be endorsed as national policy by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court.
Several delegates here admitted the abortion-rights movement responded vigorously to the threat of state action against abortion created by the Supreme Court's Webster decision. "But it also awakened people on our side," Craig said.
Willke said membership in National Right to Life's 3,000 chapters may have jumped by 33 percent in the last 12 months. The group serves as the antiabortion movement's mainstream, declining to endorse civil disobedience pursued by organizations such as Operation Rescue.
Several delegates said they hoped to persuade more states to require parental or judicial consent for abortions for girls under 18. A Supreme Court decision on consent laws in Ohio and Minnesota is expected soon.
Terry Selby, a clinical social worker from Bemidji, Minn., said he also hoped states would require women having abortions to read and sign a statement of possible ill effects. Selby said many of his clients encounter emotional problems years after an abortion similar to the post traumatic stress disorders suffered by Vietnam combat veterans.
Convention leaders celebrated primary victories for antiabortion candidates in seven California state Assembly races and for Republican lieutenant governor candidate Marian Bergeson, who announced "read my lipstick, when it comes to protecting innocent life you can't change your mind." They said little about the governor's race, where all major candidates favor abortion rights and Democratic nominee Dianne Feinstein withdrew her support for a ban on sex-selection abortions after being criticized by abortion-rights leaders.