Posted: Jan. 28, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Before John C. Carney Jr. began a speech Monday evening, he declared he was going to take off his suit jacket -- which let him show that at 46, he still has the physique of the football player he was at St. Mark's High School and Dartmouth College.

It was not a bad way for the Democratic lieutenant governor to begin.

He was speaking to about 25 members of the Democratic Women's Club of Delaware, gathered at a restaurant in Marshallton, with a focus on what interested them.

Not long after the suit jacket came off, Carney wooed his audience with an appeal about how important it was to re-elect Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democratic governor, to dispel the myths of whether a woman could do the job.

"This is one tough cookie making difficult decisions every day," Carney said.

Carney mentioned a number of items on the governor's watch list, such as state finances and security concerns after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. The club members asked about others, like congestion and a high cancer rate.

Surprisingly, there was not one word about smoking. Instead, a great deal of the evening was devoted to another matter that had this particular group feeling nervous.

It was abortion rights. The week before the club meeting, there was not only the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in  Roe v. Wade, but also notice from Attorney General M. Jane Brady, a three-term Republican, that the state ought to be enforcing a law requiring a 24-hour lapse between a woman's consent to an abortion and the procedure.

Brady said the determination was the result of a belated review of dormant state law in light of recent Supreme Court rulings. The review is continuing into other aspects of the statute.

Enforcement of the 24-hour wait will be regulatory in nature, not criminal -- meaning that doctors who violate the law could face penalties ranging from warnings not to do it again to suspension or loss of their licenses to practice medicine.

State Rep. Melanie L. George, a Bear Democrat who attended the club meeting, said Brady has set off alarm bells with those who favor abortion rights because they fear a "slippery slope" of increasing restrictions.

"There is a coalition of legislators that will be working together to formulate a strategy to protect a woman's right to choose in Delaware. I will do whatever it takes to protect a woman's right to choose in Delaware," George said. "What other kinds of provisions is the attorney general going to look at enforcing that force abortions into the back alleys again?"

Brady's own philosophy is that abortion should be legal but limited. "I don't believe abortion should be available for sex selection or as a means of birth control, but I believe it should be an option for women in the first trimester," she said. "I support parental involvement for minors, except in cases of incest, and I am vehemently opposed to late-term abortion unless the life of the mother is at risk."

It is hard to think of something that makes politicians more uncomfortable than being asked about abortion rights. "It's the absolute worst issue, because it's so emotional and religious and moral," Carney said. "As a male, it's a decision I'll never have to make."

Carney's own view is complex, due in no small part in his case because he is a practicing Catholic. "That issue is an issue that is a very personal one. Largely that's the reason I believe a woman ought to make the decision. My own religious belief is that life begins at conception, but women ought to be free to make the decision based on their own belief," he said.

Brady has stirred up what has been little more than background noise in state politics. Even the Delaware Republican Party, which contains a dedicated contingent of anti-abortion rights activists, has steered away from it. Instead, the party is on record with a "Big Tent" resolution, saying there is room within it for all views.

The truce probably can be regarded as prudent politics all around. Jack M. Balkin, a Yale Law School professor, warned in the New York Times on Sunday that conservatives seeking to outlaw abortion do so at their peril, because settled law would be replaced by pitched battle.

He predicted that overturning Roe v. Wade would shatter the Republican Party, depriving it of libertarians and suburbanites who gravitate to it because of its stance on low taxes and a strong national defense and driving moderates and independents to the Democratic Party.

"Many Republicans hope that President Bush will soon nominate pro-life justices who will sweep away the right to abortion and allow the deep religious conviction and moral revulsion that some Americans feel about abortion to be fully expressed in politics. They should be careful what they wish for," Balkin wrote.

Similarly, if a controversy over abortion rights usurps the public dialogue in Delaware, it could be an aid to Minner and the Democrats in 2004, when the governor is up for re-election.

By comparison, any other issue would go up in smoke.