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No Room in the Big Tent

What will it take for pro-choice Republicans to leave the Republican Party?
 
 
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Anti-abortion Republicans have a lot to celebrate. The confirmation of Samuel Alito and John Roberts, two anti-abortion Supreme Court justices, and the passage of the South Dakota law banning all abortion, have been seen as clear Republican victories. But for pro-choice Republicans, appalled and disgusted by the South Dakota law, the party ended a long time ago. While some say it's important to speak out and fight for change, others say they're tired of fighting a losing battle.

"I was a Republican. I did stand up. I got crucified for it and finally said, 'To hell with it,'" says Elisabeth "Jinx" Ecke, a longtime Planed Parenthood supporter and board member in San Diego, Calif. "I've tried to support Republican candidates in the California Assembly, and they swear on a stack of bibles that they'll vote pro- choice. Then they go to Sacramento and they vote anti-choice. I'm done."

Ecke, 74, cast her first vote for Dwight Eisenhower back in 1953. Four years ago, she reregistered by checking the "Decline to State" box. "I'm supporting mostly Democrats for one simple reason: choice," she says. "People say you can't be a one issue voter and I say, 'Yes I can.'"

Jewel Edson, 46, another lifelong Republican who "sadly" voted for President Bush in 2000 and Sen. John Kerry in 2004, says she's disappointed with the Republican Party in general. "It has turned me into a person who votes for a candidate, not the party," she says.

Today, the Republican Party's platform says, "Any effort to address global social problems must be firmly placed within a context of respect for the fundamental social institutions of marriage and family. For that reason, we support protecting the rights of families in international programs and oppose funding organizations involved in abortion." It also says, "We support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make it clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children. Our purpose is to have legislative and judicial protection of that right against those who perform abortions."

Sue Savage ran as a Republican national delegate during George H.W. Bush's term because she wanted to take abortion out of the party's platform and out of politics altogether. She lost her bid.

Savage says she and her pro-choice Republican friends from Lancaster County, Penn., can no longer compromise over the issues of abortion and family planning. "A lot of my friends have left the Republican Party, including friends who've been elected in the Republican Party," she says. "I was privately voting for Democrats in the voting booth, but it got to the point where it was a very cathartic experience to officially change parties."

Hoping to prevent others from leaving the party in droves, the Republican Majority for Choice (RMC) last month launched a campaign called the "Hunt for Real Republicans" in Pennsylvania, home of one of the most watched Senate races in the country. The campaign kicked off with ads in every major daily Pennsylvania newspaper calling for real Republicans to step up and challenge the extreme right wing of the party. While the ads didn't specifically mention Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, they were obviously targeting his extreme views on choice, family planning and stem cell research.

"Our ad campaign is meant to force a dialogue," says Kellie Ferguson, executive director of the RMC. "Can we get Santorum to at least open his mind? If he doesn't, he's going to lose. We don't want to oppose members of our own party, but we need to point out that this has gone too far."

In a March 3, 2006, letter to the group, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a member of its advisory board, wrote, "I strongly oppose these advertisements. The Big Tent is big enough to include both Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter. The RMC ought not to be in the business of electing Democrats to the United States Senate. Without Senator Santorum's support, I would not have won the 2004 Republican primary. As I believe the RMC knows, I've repeatedly said that Senator Santorum's reelection is my top priority in 2006. I call on." Specter went on to say that he will withhold his decision on whether to resign from the RMC's advisory board until he sees what further action RMC takes on this matter.

The RMC, which opposed Sen. Specter's vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, will continue its "Hunt for Real Republican" campaign in Pennsylvania through mailings and online outreach and plans to expand it to other states.

Ferguson says immediately after the South Dakota law passed, many of the RMC's 150,000 members called and emailed the group threatening to leave the Republican Party unless the tide changes. "The scales have finally tipped, and it's time for us to take the lead," she says. "The ban on abortion with no exception for rape and incest is reality now. It's always been a threat that no one ever thought would come to light."

Bush reinstated the Global Gag Rule on his first day in office, which halts all funding to overseas family planning clinics. Just three days before the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Bush proclaimed Jan. 19, 2003, as National Sanctity of Human Life Day. Bush's views have been clear from the start, so why has it taken so long for pro-choice Republicans to speak out?

"Moderates by nature are peaceful and don't want to rock the boat," says Ann Stone, executive director of Republicans for Choice, a D.C.-based group with 150,000 members in all 50 states. "I haven't been peaceful. The party needs to take a look at itself and what it's become because it has gotten away from its basic ideals."

Stone says she welcomes the South Dakota law because it has split the anti-choice movement and forces anti-choice Republicans to publicly take a stand on exceptions for rape and incest.

"Republicans are in power. The reason there's never been an up and down vote in Congress to frontally assault Roe is because they know the debate would kill them," she says. Only a few prominent Republican Senators have been questioned by the national media about this issue. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas told Newsweek he strongly backs the South Dakota law. "I'd have signed it," he said. "Rape and incest are horrible crimes, but why punish the innocent child?"

And anti-abortion Sen. George Allen of Virginia told Newsweek that if a similar bill had come through his own state's legislature when he was governor, he would have vetoed it.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona has gone on record saying he supports banning abortion with exceptions to protect the life of the mother and in cases of rape or incest.

"We've actually considered trying to provoke a Senate vote and expose them once and for all for what they are: people who want to control women," says Stone.

Out of 55 Republicans in the Senate, 46 have a 0 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America and a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee. With the exception of Sens. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, all of those senators are men.

So far, AlterNet has placed two phone calls asking each of those senators if they support overturning Roe v. Wade and, if so, do they support an exception for rape and incest? Not one senator has responded. Right now the fate of abortion rights is in the hands of the courts. But if it comes down to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v.Wade, people will remember which senators voted for the anti-abortion justices. Perhaps then, if not before, the senators will be held accountable.

Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist who recently returned from a six-month road trip through the so-called " red states ." She is writing a book about her journey.