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On Abortion - A `Negotiated Peace'?

FOR those who love their politics served up with high drama, nothing could match the frenzied scene in the Louisiana Capitol one Sunday evening a few weeks ago. Just 30 hours before the legislative session ended, lawmakers worked an astonishing sleight-of-hand. They took a flag-burning measure, gutted it of its language, and presto! - within hours a two-page bill banning most abortions was sitting on the desk of Gov. Buddy Roemer. The proposed law, which would also punish doctors who perform abortions, is only slightly less restrictive than one the governor had vetoed days earlier. That bill would have outlawed all abortions except those to save a woman's life.

This desperate haste on the part of legislators is only the latest manifestation of growing anti-abortion sentiment in state capitals around the country. From Idaho - where Gov. Cecil Andrus last spring vetoed what would have been the nation's most restrictive abortion law - to Michigan, Oregon, and Missouri, abortion battles are heating up.

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Abortion-rights advocates in Louisiana, stunned by the legislators' tactics, say they are renewing their determination to increase the ranks of women in elected office. That may be a partial solution, since Louisiana currently holds the dubious distinction of having only three female legislators out of 144 - the lowest percentage of any state.

But simply attempting to adjust the gender balance in state legislatures - thus avoiding the sad spectacle of male politicians aloofly defining for pregnant women what constitutes a crime - will never address a fundamental question that underlies the entire abortion debate: Where are the men who are partners in these unwanted pregnancies?

Except for a few scattered cases - loosely clustered under the category of ``fathers' rights'' - in which men have gone to court to try to prevent a woman from having an abortion, men too often become part of the discussion only as lawmakers or as anti-abortion activists protesting in front of clinics. Abortion continues to be regarded almost exclusively as a ``women's issue,'' as though a fertilized embryo springs to life in the womb of its own accord.

Yet if men really want to reduce the need for abortion - and what thinking person, man or woman, does not? - they must begin by sharing the moral responsibility for preventing pregnancy, and by accepting equally the consequences of their actions when an unplanned pregnancy occurs.

One of the most heartening signs of progress within the family during the past decade has been the emergence of the nurturing father - the one who attends Lamaze classes, participates at the delivery, takes time off from work after the birth, and shares in childrearing in ways his own father often did not.

Now that kind of caring must be extended beyond a voluntary lifestyle to an approved code of behavior. The partnership of parenthood, in every sense, needs to be cooperatively acknowledged and cooperatively implemented, not only by fathers and mothers but by society.

The civil war must cease that pits fathers against mothers, and sets right-to-life groups against right-to-choice groups. Nothing can happen until the debate cools. Opinions may not change, but attitudes have to.

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Any new beginning must first defuse the present animosities and humble self-righteousness on all sides. Polarized antagonists must seek to find what they can agree upon rather than reiterate non-negotiable positions.

Good will is never simple. But on this painful and emotional subject, how much good will has been tried between shouting matches and even bombings? If glasnost is possible in the cold war, why not in this war of the moralists that threatens to tear the country apart?

In his new book, ``Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes,'' Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe writes of the need to reach a ``negotiated peace.'' It is a phrase that promises consciences will be left intact, though behavior may have to accommodate. What else is democracy supposed to be about?

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