CHICAGO, AUG. 8 -- After an unprecedented lobbying blitz, the American Bar Association's policy-making body voted today to rescind the abortion-rights stand it endorsed just six months ago.
The ABA's House of Delegates, by a vote of 200 to 188, adopted a resolution that said the issue is "extremely divisive" and that the group will take no official position on it. The vote came after two hours of sometimes emotional debate and on the final day of a contentious ABA convention here that was dominated by the abortion issue.
Anthony R. Palermo, the ABA's incoming secretary who led the fight for reversal, said he hopes the wounds caused by the previous vote will now be healed. "I hope we do not have to again go through what the association has for the past six months," he said.
The resolution that passed last February by a 2 to 1 ratio recognized "the fundamental rights of privacy and equality guaranteed" by the Constitution and opposed "legislation or other governmental action that interferes" with a woman's reproductive right.
Lawyers seeking its reversal waged a $50,000 campaign to win today's vote, portraying their resolution as a "neutrality" stance. They argued that abortion is too divisive and personal an issue for a national lawyers' group to take an advocacy stand.
Joining them in their campaign were the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago, activists from various antiabortion groups, and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
Supporters of the abortion-rights stand fought back with the ABA's official machinery, arguing that a reversal would be a repudiation of abortion rights and a return to what one called the "shameful days" of the 1950s and 1960s when the ABA shied from taking a stand on another divisive issue -- civil rights.
"This issue isn't going away," said Washington lawyer Estelle Rogers, a supporter of the abortion-rights stand, after today's vote. "It's in our courts. It's in our legislatures, and nobody has the illusion . . . that the ABA can remain on the sidelines."
During today's debate, D.C. Bar President Sara-Ann Determan, a sponsor of the February resolution, said the protest of the past six months "was not a spontaneous outpouring of members' sentiment," but an orchestrated effort by a well-financed and vocal minority to deter "pro-choice activities."
She called on the association to stand up to pressure from that minority on a matter of principle. "We must not become mere bystanders in the most important legal debate since the early days of the civil rights movement," Determan told her colleagues.
But ABA incoming president John J. Curtin, who had opposed the February resolution, asserted that the abortion-rights stand would threaten support for positions the ABA has taken on such "critical issues" as legal services for the poor and civil rights.
"This single issue provides too much ammunition to those who are using it to diminish our ability to support justice and oppose discrimination," Curtin said.
Thornburgh had sounded a similar warning, suggesting that the group's stand on one of "the most hot-button, highly emotional, political issues of the day" could taint the ABA's appearance as a neutral evaluator of judges. The ABA, in one of its most prized perogatives, screens potential nominees to the federal bench, including the Supreme Court.
The divisions on the abortion issue were just as great within the ABA's leadership as among the group's 350,000 members.
Moments before Curtin spoke, Talbot D'Alemberte, who is in line to succeed him as the next ABA president, called on the House of Delegates to stand its ground.
The members who voted today were essentially the same group that had favored the abortion-rights stand in February. After the vote was taken, an abortion-rights activist walked up to Palermo, shook his hand and suggested the fight would continue. "Till tomorrow," she said.