CHICAGO, AUG. 6 -- After days of intense lobbying, members of the American Bar Association voted today to recommend that the ABA's policy-making body rescind the abortion-rights stand it passed last February.
While the vote is not binding, it was viewed as a victory for opponents of the abortion-rights stand, who have mounted a vigorous campaign to seek its formal reversal. Their narrow win, by a vote of 885 to 837, was a first step in the campaign that will culminate Wednesday before the House of Delegates, the ABA's policy-making body.
The 360,000-member association is holding its annual convention here this week, and the abortion debate has turned the normally low-key event into a lobbying battleground. The ABA Assembly, the group voting today, is made up of all members who pay the $250 convention registration fee and then show up to vote. The House of Delegates is a representative body of 461 members.
Opponents of the abortion-rights stand are spending an estimated $50,000 in an attempt to overturn the House of Delegates resolution. They have received the help of a professional public relations agent, several antiabortion groups and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, which asked parish priests to lobby lawyer-parishioners.
ABA abortion-rights activists struck back by cranking out thousands of letters to ABA members and focused their efforts on getting young lawyers and female lawyers to today's session.
D.C. Bar President Sara-Ann Determan, a prime abortion-rights supporter, asserted that today's slim vote margin would send no clear signal to the House of Delegates. ABA Secretary-elect Anthony Palermo of New York, leader of the antiabortion forces, disagreed, saying the vote would boost their efforts Wednesday.
At stake is an ABA policy that recognizes "the fundamental rights of privacy and equality guaranteed" by the Constitution and opposes "legislation or governmental action that interferes" with the relationship between a pregnant woman and her doctor.
Palermo's resolution called on the ABA to remain "neutral" in the abortion controversy, and today's emotional debate focused on that issue. Palermo said the policy endorsed last February "trampled upon the individual rights of every ABA member to hold, express and advocate on abortion as she or he chooses."
Determan, however, argued that it is unlikely any lawyer feels constrained from speaking out personally on an issue on which the ABA has a contrary policy. "An organization of lawyers must never turn its back on an issue of core civil liberties because of threats and financial pressure," she said. The ABA's "least proud times," she argued, were when it shied from taking a stand on civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.
Meanwhile, in a luncheon speech before the association, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) charged that Attorney General Dick Thornburgh was engaged in "unseemly attempts . . . to muzzle the Senate confirmation process" of 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David H. Souter, who has been nominated to succeed Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr.
Kennedy, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Souter has "written little about the significant legal issues of our time."
Abortion-rights activists have been combing Souter's record to learn whether he might join the court's conservatives in overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision on a woman's constitutional right to choose abortion.
Kennedy said the Judiciary Committee "intends to find out what Judge Souter thinks about the Constitution. . . . In this day and age, the Senate will not confirm a blank slate to the Supreme Court of the United States."
When told of Kennedy's remarks, Thornburgh, who spoke at another ABA function, took issue with his characterization of Souter as a blank slate. Souter has a "distinguished record" as a state court judge in New Hampshire, "not unlike the prior judicial career of retiring Justice William Brennan," he said.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall had been scheduled to speak at the convention tonight, but returned to Washington Friday after a fall. In his speech, delivered by Washington lawyer Karen Hastie Williams, a former Marshall clerk, Marshall assailed conservatives in Congress and on the court for cutting back on constitutional protections afforded to death row inmates appealing their cases.