(WOMENSENEWS)--Winding through the crowds in Washington, D.C., during April's pro-choice march, Jennifer Blei Stockman and dozens of fellow-travelers held up simple white signs on wooden sticks saying, "I'm a Pro-Choice Republican."
"People applauded us. They were so happy to see a Republican group there," said Stockman, a Connecticut resident. But then she admits, "Wewere the oxymoron of the March."
A pro-choice faction might seem, at first glance, fated for outcast status in a Republican Party that takes a hard line against abortion and women's right to choose. Undaunted, however, the group is now raising an even bolder banner and staking a greater claim on its rightful place in the GOP. Begun in 1999, when three regional groups with similar missions combined to form the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition, the group last month renamed itself Republican Majority for Choice, with the emphasis on "majority."
"We are the majority in the Republican Party; the silent majority. This is a way to make our message clear and to change the dialogue," said Stockman, national co-chair of Republican Majority for Choice. "Choice is one of the tenets within the Republican Party. We have school choice, retirement-savings choice. As a Republican, it's a contradiction not to be for individual choice."
But, given the contrary direction of national party leaders and a platform that is starkly anti-choice on reproductive rights, Stockman concedes, "We have a tough row to hoe."
The group, headquartered in Washington, D.C., with 10 national chapters, rolled out its new identity in anticipation of the Republican National Convention, Aug. 29-Sept. 2 in New York City.
Spurred by Poll Findings
The group claimed its "majority" position after conducting a May telephone poll of 1,006 individuals, including a representative sampling of 290 Republicans, about reproductive rights. Four out of five Republicans agreed that a "person must follow her own faith, personal beliefs, and conscience in private matters like abortion." Three-fifths said they would decline to take away the choice of others, even if they would not personally choose abortion. A majority, or 52 percent, of Republicans said Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that declared that states could not prohibit abortion in all circumstances, should not be overturned.
Bob Carpenter is vice president of American Viewpoint, the Alexandria, Va., firm that conducted the poll. "The numbers," he said, "show that there is consistent support for abortion rights within the Republican Party. People think it's a personal decision."
Those Democrats and independents who were polled supported women's right to choose by even greater margins. Nine out of 10 Democrats and 89 percent of independents agreed that a woman and not the government should make decisions about abortion.
What 'Pro-Choice' Really Means
Republicans and Democrats diverged on the use of "pro-choice" as a label or term with which they identify themselves.
Substantially fewer Republicans than Democrats defined themselves as "pro-choice" even when they articulated pro-choice values, responding that they believe women "should have the full range of reproductive choices such as abstinence, contraception, motherhood, adoption and abortion."
Slightly more than half of the Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats called themselves "pro-choice," although, 70 and 92 percent, respectively, support a full range of reproductive choices.
Kellie Rose, executive director of the Republican Majority for Choice, said that the "pro-choice" label is misinterpreted as meaning "pro-abortion" rather than reflecting the full range of reproductive choices, including abstinence, contraception, adoption, motherhood and safe, legal abortion. "People step back from the term 'pro-choice' as being too closely aligned with abortion alone or as taking an absolutist position," said Rose. In changing its name, the group is testing a slight variation, using "choice" to replace the "pro-choice" moniker that it previously used.
Electing More Moderates
Moving more Republicans who favor women's right to choose into office is central to the five-year strategy of Republican Majority for Choice. The group is endorsing 40 candidates in 2004, and raising $2 million to energize Republican supporters of choice, said Stockman.
"Moderates are coming out of the closet. They are so sick of what's happening to the party," she said.
One Republican candidate it will not be supporting: President George W. Bush.
"The reality of Bush is that he has done nothing for us. We can only endorse pro-choice candidates as an organization. We will not endorse Bush," said Stockman, who is also a convention delegate.
During the convention, the group will host a reception on Aug. 31 to honor politicians who support women's right to choose. In advance of the convention, the group is proposing changes in the anti-choice platform.
"The issue of choice should be taken out of the platform and not be a core part of the agenda," said Rose. "The Republican Party should be a big tent that is inclusive of everyone, but there's a split on this issue. We can agree to disagree and still be part of the same party."
The organization provided significant support to electing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California last fall with a "Women for Arnold" committee, which they say helped to close a gender gap.
This spring, "Women for Arlen" deployed a phone bank and mailings to enlist moderates to turn out for the primary contest of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
Specter has a mixed record on his support for reproductive rights issues. Specter voted to outlaw some abortion procedures under the so-called "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban," now being fought in courts. He also voted to create a "childhood" status for fetuses when crimes are perpetrated against pregnant women in the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, passed by Congress.
Specter, however, is not absolutist on the matter. He voted to overturn a total ban on abortion at military facilities or under military insurance and to move forward legislation to overturn the Bush administration's "global gag rule," which prohibits U.S. funding of overseas family planning programs that provide, refer or advocate for abortion services.
While admitting that Specter is "not perfect" on choice, Stockman said it was important to keep him on the Judiciary Committee to prevent extremist control in the review of nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court. She also noted that he was targeted by hard right conservative Rep. Pat Toomey.
Specter won his primary by a narrow margin of under 2 percent of votes and faces Joseph Hoeffel, a Democratic congressional representative from Philadelphia, in the general election in November.
Legislatively, the Republican Majority for Choice is also lobbying for issues that draw moderates into the fold.
It actively supports the Compassionate Assistance for Rape Emergencies Act, or CARE, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa). The bill would require hospitals to make the "morning-after" pill available to rape survivors.
The group's New York chapter promotes state legislation to permit pharmacists to sell emergency contraception without a doctor's prescription and to provide comprehensive sex education.
"If you can start little-by-little, it gives me hope that there can be change within the Republican party," said Jen Wylegala, who at 25 was named the New York chapter's executive director in June.
Wylegala joined the office as an intern two years ago while working on a master's degree in gender studies.
"My friends say, 'Can you go over the whole thing of pro-choice and Republican again?'" said Wylegala. "No one has a bad reaction."
Stockman hopes that through incremental policy shifts the group will be able to turn the tide in favor of reproductive rights and rebuild a visible base of support within the party.
"We have our eyes on 2008," said Stockman. "There is a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican party and we are going to be there."
Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York.
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