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WEST PALM BEACH, NOVEMBER 15If you have any doubt that the 2000 presidential election is a referendum on abortion rights, think again. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this afternoon agreed to hear appeals of two federal cases arguing that ballot recounts in Florida should be prohibited. One we've heard a lot about: the appeal of the Bush campaign's failed effort to have a federal judge quash recount efforts in four Florida counties.
The other is more stealthy: National anti-abortion forces have gathered to try to stop the recount, which threatens to hand defeat to their anointed candidate, Republican George W. Bush. On Monday, James Bopp Jr., general counsel of the staunchly anti-abortion James Madison Center for Free Speech in Washington, D.C., and Terre Haute, Indiana, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of three Florida citizens, asking for an end to retallies. The plaintiffs are Robert C. Touchston, Diana Touchston, and Deborah Shepperd of Brevard County.
The James Madison complaint itself isn't about abortion, but is instead focused on procedural issues. In the complaint, faxed to the Voice, the three Bush voters say Florida's election law allows the overall vote to be diluted and thus violates their 14th Amendment rights. That is the same argument the Bush campaign used in their federal complaint, also being heard by the 11th Circuit this week. Bopp's clients seek an injunction against not only the elections officials of the four contested Florida counties but also Katherine Harris, the besieged Republican secretary of state who has asked local officials to justify continuing hand counts.
Bopp routinely represents anti-abortion groups such as the National Right to Life Committee (www.nrlc.org) and the Christian Coalition in local and federal court actions, many concerning campaign-finance reforms that the groups believe inhibit their ability to lobby for "life."
The National Right to Life Committee today denied it was behind the lawsuit, and directed an inquiry to the James Madison law firm in Indiana. The receptionist there, who answered the phone "Bopp, Coleson, and Bostrum," at first said the James Madison institute was not at that number, but when pressed put the call through to Heidi K. Meyer, associate attorney.
Meyer said James Madison is indeed bringing the lawsuit to stop the recount, but also denied that the National Right to Life Committee is a party to the lawsuit. "They're not involved in any way," she said.
Still, the group has been heavily involved in this election. On its Web site, National Right to Life News, editor Dave Andrusko called on abortion proponents not to give up the fight: "We blanketed much of the nation with accurate, non-partisan explanations of which candidates were pro-life and which one were not. Gore and his ilk had much less success pretending they were 'moderates' on abortion, thanks to you." In a November 13 posting, Andrusko said the group's PAC spent nearly 50 percent more than in past elections to ensure Bush's victory. He added that Pew Research Center data shows that for Bush supporters, abortion was the number two issue for men and number one for women.
Harris's inclusion as a defendant is somewhat surprising, considering that the co-chairwoman of Bush's Florida campaign is a prized convert to the anti-abortion forces in the state. The woman with the faded beauty-queen smile and Tammy Faye makeup ran for Florida state senate in 1994 as a pro-choice Republican. "I would never choose to have an abortion," she wrote to voters in a letter excerpted by the St. Petersburg Times, "but I fully support the right of every woman to make that choice for herself."
Yet while in office, the senator from Sarasota converted to the anti-abortion column, supporting an override to then governor Lawton Chiles's veto of a "partial-birth" abortion ban. She joined televangelist D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge, Florida, to lobby Chiles to change his mind. Harris co-sponsored a bill requiring parental consent for teen abortions. Both bills were vetoed by Chiles, a Democrat, during 1998, his last year in office. He also vetoed a "Choose Life" license plate with crayon-like drawings of two children's faces. But that plate was approved by Governor Jeb Bush and his cabinet in late 1999 by a 5-2 vote. Harris, by then secretary of state, voted for the plate.
The Florida Right to Life chapter has consistently given Harris grades of 100. She, in turn, used her anti-abortion stance against her Democrat opponent for secretary of state, Karen Gievers, in 1998. In a campaign ad, Harris called Gievers a "liberal" because she was the former president of GWEN's List (Get Women Elected Now), which supports pro-abortion-rights candidates.
On the NRL Web site, Andrusko bemoans the uncertainty of the recount process in Florida, concluding: "(W)e will wildly celebrate if pro-life Gov. George W. Bush wins and mourn if pro-abortion Vice President Al Gore is declared the winner. But should the latter misfortune take place, we will take a few days to recover and then take up where we left off."
Julie Piscitelli, spokeswoman of the National Abortion Rights Action League in Washington, D.C., said no one affiliated with NARAL is entering the Florida election fracas or filing any lawsuits. She says the group's only action has been to sign on to an ad run today in major newspapers by People for the American Way.
Framed as an open letter to Gore and Bush, the ad argues: "The serious problems concerning procedures in Florida that are now coming to light cast a cloud over the outcome of the election that can only be dispelled by a thorough airing of the facts and, if warranted, by corrective measures that will be seen as even-handed and just."
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