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Candidates square off on abortion issue

In the campaign for Florida's 9th District Congressional seat, no one can accuse the candidates of sitting on the fence. At least not on the issue of abortion.

There is no question where the two stand: One candidate gets enthusiastic support from the National Right to Life Committee, and the other has called herself "adamantly" in favor of abortion rights.

U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, a strong abortion opponent, is running for re-election. Cheryl Davis Knapp, a Democrat from Safety Harbor, is challenging Bilirakis for his seat in the general election Nov. 6.

Bilirakis, 60, a lawyer, has been the 9th District congressman since 1982. Knapp, a nurse from Safety Harbor, has never run for public office. Each hopes to represent the district that includes northern Pinellas, northern Hillsborough and western Pasco counties.

Abortion is such a contentious topic that it sometimes produces single-issue candidates. But neither Bilirakis nor Knapp has sought to make it the central focus of their campaigns, although Knapp is running one radio ad on the subject.

The abortion issue nonetheless is playing a significant role.

Bilirakis states his views plainly: He opposes abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, or when necessary to protect the life of the mother.

Bilirakis was asked about the issue in a recent meeting of editorial writers and a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. Bilirakis said, "Nobody is happy as a legislator to make that kind of a decision, but it is thrust upon us, and we've got to take a position. And my position is, no abortion on demand.

"I've got a very strong moral feeling about it," he said.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right To Life Committee, said Bilirakis is considered a strong supporter of the anti-abortion position.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Religious Coalition on Abortion Rights said Bilirakis voted the wrong way in seven of seven votes it considered important. The votes had to do with abortion and issues of "economic justice."

Knapp doesn't beat around the bush either.

"I will not see women die from lack of safe access to abortions," she said.

Knapp also opposes measures requiring girls under 18 to obtain parental consent before having an abortion. She said those laws wouldn't make sense if a girl were a victim of incest.

Knapp and Bilirakis have not debated publicly during the campaign.

But before Knapp threw her hat in the ring, she was one of those who debated Bilirakis at a meeting of the Upper Pinellas chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). The members hoped to persuade Bilirakis to change his views on some key issues, such as abortion.

They told Bilirakis that polls have shown most people believe women should have the right to choose whether to have abortions and that Bilirakis should follow the wishes of the majority. But Bilirakis told the group he intended to maintain his strong stance against abortion.

Afterward, NOW members announced to the media that they would try to recruit a candidate to run against Bilirakis.

As it happened, Knapp was that candidate.

Knapp said last week she had not decided at that point to run for office, although it had crossed her mind.

The abortion issue was one reason she decided to run. She said she was particularly bothered by one bill Bilirakis co-sponsored.

The bill, which did not pass, was dubbed the "Personhood Act." It would have granted certain constitutional rights to "the preborn."

The bill was designed to outlaw abortion. It did not specifically exempt abortions for women who were raped or were the victims of incest.

The Personhood Act was an important factor in Knapp's decision to run for Congress.

"That was very important. That someone would be so insensitive to the needs of American women that they would actually sponsor or co-sponsor a bill that would attempt to make birth control illegal for women," she said.

Knapp said the bill would have made some forms of contraception illegal, although Bilirakis' campaign spokesman, David White, said he did not believe that was the case.

When Bilirakis was asked about the bill in the meeting of editorial writers, he said he could not recall it.

"I'm not really prepared to answer that," he said.

In a later interview, White said the bill wasn't meant to be Bilirakis' final word on abortion.

Instead, it was a way for the congressman to restate his view that abortions should not be allowed, White said. He said it should be viewed as a general statement opposing abortion, not his idea of the perfect bill.

Most of the people who sponsored the bill realized that it probably would not pass the House of Representatives, White said. Otherwise, it probably would have gotten far more scrutiny.