Huffington Caught in Middle on Abortion
Mike Huffington, the Republican congressman from Santa Barbara, has endorsed a woman’s right to have an abortion. He has voted to lift the federal abortion gag rule. He has voted in favor of the bill that guarantees free access to abortion clinics.
So how was it that our freshman lawmaker wound up in his shirt sleeves in the rain chasing women across a Washington front lawn to defend himself against charges that he is Randall Terry in a Faye Wattleton disguise?
For the record:
12:00 AM, Aug. 17, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 17, 1994 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
An article in Friday’s editions inaccurately quoted Ann Stone, national chairman of Republicans for Choice in Alexandria, Va. Defending Republican Senate candidate Mike Huffington’s stand on abortion, Stone said the Santa Barbara congressman “is pro-choice not anti-choice. The worst liberal Democrat pro-choicers can say is that he is mixed choice.”
It seems Huffington has accomplished what no other California lawmaker has, at least in anyone’s admittedly short memory: He has succeeded in ticking off both sides in the ever-emotional abortion fray.
The California Republican Assembly did not endorse Huffington partly because of his vocal advocacy of a woman’s right to choose. It would be difficult to count the times he’s stood up in public and announced “I am pro-choice,” leading one to conclude he’s not exactly lining up with Operation Rescue.
Then along comes Lynn Cutler, a former National Democratic Committee officer, who invited guests to her home for a recent fund-raiser with a letter denouncing Huffington as “everything that is antithetical to us as women and as Jews.” Huffington is not really an abortion rights advocate at all, and because 90% of the American Jewish public is in favor of a woman’s right to choose abortion, that makes him anti-Jewish as well, she reasoned, prompting a horrified Huffington to station himself on her front lawn in the rain.
Shortly after that, a coalition of abortion rights groups held a news conference assailing Huffington as a traitor among their ranks.
“He’s talking out of both sides of his mouth,” said a miffed Marcela Howell, executive director of the California Abortion Rights Action League. “This man who calls himself pro-choice has voted more frequently with (conservative Orange County congressman) Bob Dornan than with pro-choice elected officials.”
Pity the poor voter trying to sort out this one as Huffington challenges Dianne Feinstein for her U.S. Senate seat. Is he for abortion rights or isn’t he?
“I totally and unequivocally support a woman’s right to choose,” Huffington wrote in a recent letter to The Times. “I also support some sensible restrictions on abortion.”
He backs parental notification in cases of minors under 18, although not parental consent. He supported the Hyde amendment that would have restricted federal funding for poor women except in cases of incest or when the mother’s life was in danger. He also opposes federal funding of abortions except as a “last resort” when the state or county won’t pay, but he voted against local funding for the District of Columbia.
Aha, say the abortion rights activists.
“When we say ‘pro-choice’ we are talking about no restrictions and no obstacles,” said Jane Hasler Henick, president of the California branch of the National Women’s Political Caucus. “When you start using terms like ‘last resort’ that suggests someone other than the woman will decide, and that’s not a choice.”
Abortion rights groups such as CARAL use two basic criteria when determining if a lawmaker is on their side: legality and funding. A true advocate endorses a woman’s right to a legal abortion and funding if she needs it.
CARAL says that nine out of 14 times Huffington has “voted wrong,” including supporting amendments that would have gutted the the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, even though he voted for the act itself in the end.
So CARAL branded him a lawmaker who could not be trusted. Abortion influences blocs of voters as few other issues can, and the CARAL stamp can be indelible, the political equivalent of gum on your shoe. It doesn’t rub off easily.
Which leaves Huffington in the middle of a battlefield dodging bullets from both sides. But his odd predicament has Republicans who favor abortion rights firing a few shots at CARAL officials, whom they accuse of claiming to be nonpartisan while behaving like lackeys for the Democratic Party.
With all four candidates declaring themselves supporters of abortion rights in the state’s senate and gubernatorial races, the critics ask, why doesn’t CARAL just celebrate the fact and stay out of it?
“They have always been attacked as (lackeys for Democrats) and I have tried to defend them. But when they pull stunts like this, you have to wonder,” said Ann Stone, national chairman of Republicans for Choice, in Alexandria, Va. “He’s not anti-choice. The worst you can say is he’s mixed choice.”
But in the black-and-white world of abortion rights there is no such thing as “mixed choice.” The activists contend that restrictions are dangerous, that when you start allowing lawmakers to draw lines, you make public policy of something best left between a woman and her doctor.
The lesson for Huffington may be this: In the war over abortion rights, the worst place to stand is in the middle.
“What he is learning as a novice . . . is there is no middle ground,” said Larry Berg, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “I suspect he was trying to find one. You can’t be all things to everyone on abortion.”