"Are we a pro-life party or a pro-abortion rights party? That's what we're here to decide," declared Representative Henry Hyde at a meeting Friday of Republican delegates in a downtown hotel.
As a matter of official policy, the answer was already known to the delegates, activists and reporters assembled to participate in the GOP's latest go-round on the always contentious abortion issue.
But knowing they would be shut down did not stop three Republican women from trying in vain to change their party's platform to either be silent on the subject of abortion, or to "welcome" Republicans who dissent from the party's pro-life posture.
"The platform does not reflect the opinion and belief of thousands and thousands of pro-choice men and women" in the Republican party, said California delegate Toni Casey. She proposed striking from the platform the plank that details the party's support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion and opposition to federal funding of abortion through government programs like Medicaid.
New Hampshire delegate Maureen Barrows, who joined with Casey and Candace Straight of New Jersey in support of revising the platform, read a letter from 11 members of Congress who also want the language dropped. "Why offend so many moderate Republicans, independents and swing voters?" they wrote.
"I've heard 'Take it out of politics'. I don't know how you take the defense of defenseless human life out of politics," responded Hyde, a long-time anti-abortion rights activist, who said the "platform is meaningless if it doesn't stand for something."
The effort to strike the anti-abortion language was voted down 11-3.
That done, Straight tried to add a statement that would "recognize and respect that a large number of Republicans do not agree with the existing platform plank."
No way, said Vermont delegate Rand Larson. That caveat, Larsen argued, "puts an asterisk after" the anti-abortion plank and would "greatly water down" the platform.
Ellen Sauerbrey, a Maryland delegate who presided over the closely watched session, extended the time limit for debate several times so that the both sides could be heard.
Casey complained that "this platform does not even reflect the views of our candidate George W. Bush," because the anti-abortion provision does not include exceptions for rape, incest or saving the life of a pregnant woman.
Outside the committee hearing, Ann Stone of Republicans for Choice called the current plank a "fraud."
She noted that there's been no effort by the Republican majority in Congress to bring the anti-abortion rights constitutional amendment to a vote in the six years the GOP has controlled Congress. "If they really believed in this policy, they'd have had a vote," she said.
Stone said the subcommittee sent pro-abortion rights Republicans the message that "your opinion doesn't count."/b> She warned that come November, these Republicans could determine the election's outcome in key swing states if they get turned off by party leaders' intransigence on the platform language.
Oklahoma delegate Cheryl Williams doesn't see it that way: "When we stand for life, we win. Our people, our candidates always win when we're different from the Democrats."
Asked about the tenor of the debate, the man in charge of the platform, Michigan Gov. Tommy Thompson, said "The tenor is Republicans want to win."
Stone said that even though Casey and Straight's motions failed, there are a few more opportunities for pro-abortion rights Republicans to be heard and recognized by the rest of the convention. The language will be reviewed again in a final meeting of the platform committee that reviews the work of the eight smaller groups; a "minority report" expressing their views could be attached to the platform; and, if a majority of six states' delegates get behind it, they can bring the debate to the floor of the convention next week.