Ridge's Abortion Conundrum

A GOOD DOG by Jon Katz
Villard Books
Tom Ridge, a one-time altar boy, a churchgoing Roman Catholic and the staunchly Republican governor of Pennsylvania, is at odds with his church and his party on the issue of abortion.

Ridge, mentioned often as a possible vice presidential running mate for George W. Bush, defends his position as "where I want to be." But he adds that it can make his public life awkward.

"I understand my party is the pro-life party," Ridge said recently as a state plane whisked him from Harrisburg to events at new high-tech plants in this western Pennsylvania city. "One day I hope that this pro-life party will ... just be a little bit more tolerant of people with different points of view."

Ridge supports abortion rights. He also supports Pennsylvania's laws regarding the procedure - among the most restrictive in the nation. Nevertheless, his refusal to embrace his church's anti-abortion doctrine is causing him some political headaches.

"It's obviously pretty difficult for me because it puts me at odds with my faith community," said Ridge, 54. "I realize the church hasn't created the problem. I have, because I've parted company with my church on this."

By order of the bishop in his home city of Erie, Ridge - like other Catholic politicians whose views on abortion conflict with the church - is barred from speaking at Catholic events in northwestern Pennsylvania. He is free to participate in church functions, however, and regularly attends Sunday Mass with his wife and two children.

Erie Bishop Donald Trautman, who remains a personal friend of Ridge, said his directive was not aimed at the governor. However, he said, "I have to fulfill my role as the shepherd of the diocese."

Although the abortion issue did not seriously impede either of Ridge's successful campaigns for governor, he was embarrassed when 900 anti-abortion activists protested his appearance at a Catholic fund raiser in Altoona in May 1998. Ridge was permitted to speak, but he soon began turning down invitations to speak at church-sponsored events.

Ridge's position also clashes with the Republican Party's platform and Bush's anti-abortion stance, although Bush has said he will consider his friend as a potenital running mate.

Some analysts say Ridge's presence on the ticket with Bush could drive Catholics and other social conservatives from the GOP in November.

But by the standards of contemporary politics, his abortion stance is strictly middle-of-the-road, and some argue therefore that his presence on the ticket would big more voters under the tent than it would push out.

Although he wants to keep the procedure legal, he supports Pennsylvania laws requiring women seeking to terminate their pregnancies to receive counseling about the procedure and the alternatives, and making them wait at least 24 hours before having an abortion. Girls younger than 18 require the consent of at least one arent unless they go to court and persuade a judge to grant them an exemption.

National groups on opposite sides of the abortion debate dislike Ridge's position.

"He is for legal abortion on demand," said David O'Steen of the National Right to Life Committee.

Alice Germond, executive vice president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League said Ridge also fails to qualify for a NARAL endorsement.

"A true pro-choice governor, or even a moderate pro-choice governor" would do more "to make the process a little more open and a little more fair," Germond said.

When presented with these comments, Ridge shrugged, saying:

"They can decide where I should be, but I'm where I want to be, which probably means I'm not where either one of these groups want me to be," he said.