Abortion Case Foes Now Seek Common Ground : Dialogue: Two combatants in Supreme Court action talk about joining forces to back better adoption services and prenatal care.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to state restrictions on abortions, two leaders in that pivotal and bitterly fought court case have taken an unusual and "scary" step--they've started talking to each other.

While the acrimonious abortion debate continues full blast across the country--most notably of late in Louisiana, where the Legislature recently passed a controversial abortion bill--two leading opponents on the issue in Missouri have been meeting quietly for months in an effort to find common ground.

The discussions came to light this week when the two brought representatives of their respective organizations together for the first time to explore the possibility of the two sides joining forces in support of such issues as improved adoption services and better foster and prenatal care.

"If you're pro-choice . . . one of the choices is birth," said Andrew F. Puzder, the St. Louis attorney who helped draft the restrictive law tested in the Supreme Court case, explaining why he had believed the two sides could find issues on which they could agree.

Speaking of their first meeting together, B. J. Isaacson-Jones, director of Reproductive Health Services, the state's largest abortion clinic, said in a telephone interview: "Andy and I agreed immediately that, if more women had prenatal care and housing and food and all the rest of it, more might choose to carry their pregnancies to term, to parent, if that is their choice."

Although both Puzder and Isaacson-Jones say their sides will never compromise their stands on the abortion rights issue, they have agreed as individuals that their groups can work together on a myriad of issues that involve women and children.

For example, Reproductive Health Services has opened an adoption clinic and has placed 15 babies so far.

"We have strong lobby groups," said Puzder, also in a telephone interview. "We thought that, if we could both come together, we could pressure the Legislature to help out women and kids."

Whether the two sides will work together--or even whether future talks will be held--remains uncertain. Some abortion foes are skeptical. The state board of the Missouri Citizens for Life, the state's leading anti-abortion group, will vote later this month on whether to permit further participation in the talks.

But, even if no direct action results, both Puzder and Isaacson-Jones agreed that the meeting, which was held Wednesday in a St. Louis restaurant, was a "significant event," in Puzder's words.

"It was an important meeting because we'd never sat down and had a dialogue before," Isaacson-Jones said. "Some of us had never met each other before."

Samuel Lee, an abortion foe who leads Campaign Life Missouri and is former legislative chairman of Missouri Citizens for Life, said he does not object to people "sitting down together and talking," but he said he does not see the value of anti-abortion organizations joining forces with abortion advocates.

"What do we gain from it?" he asked. "I think this is a public relations coup for Reproductive Health Services. They can say they support all choices--adoption, birth and abortion. And I don't consider the abortion aspect of their position legitimate."

The abortion issue has sparked intense emotions all over the country, but nowhere more so than in Missouri, home both to some of the country's best-organized abortion foes and to one of the nation's largest abortion providers, Reproductive Health Services.

A year ago, the Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law that barred the use of public money, employees and facilities for abortions and let stand a statutory declaration that "life begins at conception."

The decision was viewed as a watershed in the abortion rights fight. The door had been opened for anti-abortion forces to continue to whittle away at abortion rights, and state legislatures across the country began to take up the issue.

In Missouri, however, the Supreme Court decision so far has had less effect than expected; anti-abortion bills introduced in the last session of the Legislature withered in committee. "It's an election year," Lee said. "They (legislators) just didn't want to deal with it." However, the bills are expected to be reintroduced when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Isaacson-Jones first contacted Puzder after she read a commentary he had written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch entitled "Common Ground on Abortion."

In it, he cited a report that showed that, although 20% of Missouri's children live in poverty, 55% of children living in single female-headed households live in poverty.

"It would seem that those who truly support choice and those who truly support life must realize that these impoverished women and children (whose interests both sides seek to protect) need help and that as two very powerful lobbying groups, we can give it to them," he wrote.

Puzder and Isaacson-Jones met twice face-to-face and talked several more times by phone before deciding to bring representatives of their respective organizations together, she said. "Was it radical for Andy and (me) to get together? It was certainly scary," Isaacson-Jones said.

She said she was "intrigued" by Puzder's commentary urging the two sides to seek common ground. "I really just wanted to talk," she said. "I didn't know what would come of it."

She said she had met Puzder only once, around the time of the Supreme Court hearing on Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. "He had seemed friendly and easy to talk to," she said.

At one point in the discussions, Puzder had suggested that an anti-abortion counselor be allowed to set up shop at the clinic, which for years has been the scene of angry and emotional anti-abortion protests. No agreement was reached on that, however, and the idea has been shelved.

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