1. Archive

Bush, Clinton moving to the middle on abortion

Published Oct. 12, 2005

It's the front lines of the abortion battle that get all the attention, with the pickets and arrests and television commercials. But most Americans reject both extremes of the debate.

Certainly, a majority of many people support a woman's right to make her own decision about abortion. Yet people become skittish about such questions as whether they want their tax money to be spent on the procedure or whether they want the law to allow teenagers to obtain abortions.

Being politicians, Bill Clinton and George Bush apparently have listened.

On the most basic point, Clinton, along with independent Ross Perot, supports the right to choose abortion. Bush opposes it.

But Bush and Clinton have political reasons to soften their stances. GOP women are ready to defect because of Bush's opposition. Clinton's problem is that he could lose support among Catholic working-class voters who oppose abortion.

So both have tried to move to the middle.

George Bush

The Republican Party platform calls for a constitutional ban on abortion. Each year Bush pledges his support to anti-abortion advocates who gather in Washington to mark the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that made abortion a right.

That helps him with abortion opponents, who are among his most faithful supporters in his tough re-election campaign.

"More than any other American, President George Bush has had to stand up for his pro-life principles in the past four years," the National Right to Life Committee says in its literature. "He has consistently, in both word and deed, defended the most defenseless members of our society _ unborn children."

But in recent months, as polls show Bush losing ground among GOP women, the president and his administration have tried to cloud his staunch opposition to abortion rights. For instance, Bush told an interviewer this summer that he would support his granddaughter if she sought an abortion. Barbara Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle have distanced themselves from the GOP platform.

It could have been a lot worse for the president politically had the Supreme Court actually overturned the Roe decision last summer when it considered a Pennsylvania statute restricting abortion.

The court upheld most of the Pennsylvania law but didn't reject the Roe decision. One big reason was the refusal of Justice David Souter, a Bush appointee, to reverse the court's precedent.

Abortion opponents were angry because they had been told by the White House that Souter would be a "home run."

While much has been made out of the hard right appointments by Presidents Reagan and Bush _ their candidates make up roughly two-thirds of the federal judiciary _ some scholars say Souter's decision proves that Bush is not directly asking his Supreme Court candidates whether they oppose abortion.

Bill Clinton

Never a man to miss a political trend, Clinton has endorsed the agenda of abortion-rights backers. The biggest item: his vow to support the Freedom of Choice Act that would prevent a weakening of abortion rights if the Roe decision is overturned.

But Clinton, too, has performed acrobatics about abortion rights. His current support of abortion rights contrasts with his days as Arkansas governor, when he backed a ballot initiative saying it was the state's duty to promote "the health, safety and welfare of every child from conception to birth."

As a result of his changes, the National Right to Life Committee accuses Clinton of being "duplicitous."

The most recent example: Clinton told Readers Digest he has "no problem" with a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion as long as poor woman are not unduly restricted. Yet in May, Clinton criticized the Supreme Court's decision upholding Pennsylvania's 24-hour delay.

A Clinton spokesman later told USA Today the candidate should have made it clear to Readers Digest he supports a "voluntary" waiting period.

If nothing else, the chapter shows Clinton is, as one aide told the Associated Press, "clearly uncomfortable" with abortion.

Like Bush, Clinton would like to see fewer abortions.

"We can be pro-family and pro-choice," he tells campaign crowds. But, while Bush talks about adoption, Clinton wants to educate schoolchildren about pregnancy.

As for judicial appointees, Clinton has given a clear indication of whom he would consider for the nation's highest court: New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

"I think Gov. Cuomo would be a good Supreme Court justice because he is a legal scholar who also understands the impact of the law on real people's lives," Clinton told MTV in mid-June.

Cuomo makes conservatives shudder because he favors abortion rights and opposes the death penalty. He has written about the need to decrease the number of abortions by practicing abstinence and adoption.

"Unless we change the terms of the debate, the question of abortion rights will lock our nation in combat indefinitely," Cuomo wrote in the New York Times in August.

Walter Dellinger, a Duke University law professor who advises Clinton on legal matters, says the 1954 court that handed down the ground-breaking Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision included former governors, senators and others from public life. By contrast, he says, "The (1992) court has not a single member who played a prominent role in the life of the nation before going on the court."

Another way to put it, though, is that Clinton might reward political allies rather than look for the best person for the job.

In any event, Dellinger argues that if Clinton appointed two justices, it would create a centrist, cautious court that is not likely to overturn Roe v. Wade.

One anti-abortion judge appointed by Bush, on the other hand, could join four other conservatives and tip the balance against Roe, Dellinger says.

In any event, it appears likely the next president will get at least one chance to nominate a Supreme Court justice. Harry Blackmun, author of the Roe decision, is telling friends this will likely be his last year on the court, the Los Angeles has reported.

When he concluded his opinion in the Pennsylvania case, Blackmun was blunt about his situation.

"I am 83 years old," he wrote. "I cannot remain on the court forever, and when I do step down, the confirmation process for my successor well may focus on the issue before us today."




Once an advocate of Planned Parenthood, George Bush placed himself firmly in the anti-abortion camp when he became Ronald Reagan's running mate in 1980. As president, Bush has vetoed several bills to expand federal financing of abortion and a bill to use fetal tissue for medical research. The GOP platform calls for a constitutional ban on abortion. Bush counts anti-abortion advocates among his staunchest supporters, though in recent months he and his allies have courted abortion rights advocates.

On Roe v. Wade

"I'm pleased that my voice is part of the growing chorus that simply says: Choose life," Bush told anti-abortion marchers at a Jan. 23, 1991 demonstration marking the anniversary of the Roe V. Wade decision. In 1992, Bush told an anti-abortion group: "From the moment the miracle of life occurs, human beings must cherish that life, must hold it in awe, must preserve, protect and defend it."

On his own family

Bush was asked what he would do it one of his adult grandchildren wanted an abortion. "Of course, I'd stand by my child," Bush told NBC news in August. "I'd love her and help her, lift her up, wipe the tears away and we'd get back in the game." He said the decision would be the woman's. "Well, whose else's _ who else's _ could it be?" he answered. Later, Bush said he'd be sorry to see it happen, just as he would be if a grandchild robbed a liquor store.


On Roe v. Wade

Clinton vows that his administration will oppose attempts to weaken the 1973 Roe V. Wade decision that established abortion as a right. "Americans can differ on what restrictions or delays or second thoughts they want to give to the issue of abortion, but I believe that most of us would like to see it not criminalized again," Clinton told PBS-TV's Bill Moyers on July 7. Earlier in the year, Clinton told an abortion rights group: "Let us remember in the hollow, quiet private rooms of people making their painful personal decisions, the government should stay home and Roe v. Wade should live." He says as president he would rescind the so-called "gag rule" that prohibits doctors from offering abortion counseling at clinics that receive federal tax dollars. He says he'd like to see public schools provide sex and health education so teenagers can avoid pregnancy.

On the Supreme Court

Clinton concedes he would impose a "litmus test" on his nominee to make sure the nominee supports the Roe V. Wade decision. "I would want the first judge I appointed to believe in the right to privacy and the right to choose," he told interviewer Bill Moyers on PBS-TV. But he says such a test makes him "uncomfortable."

On taxpayer-financed abortions

Clinton has switched his position on this since becoming a presidential candidate. He says now: "I would not veto any bill requiring Medicaid funding that passed Congress." As governor of Arkansas, Clinton supported restrictions on abortions paid by Medicaid. "I am opposed to abortion and to government funding of abortions. We should not spend state funds on abortion because so many people believe abortion is wrong," he wrote a constituent in September 1986.

On parental notification

As governor, Clinton signed a bill requiring that a parent be notified 48 hours before a minor obtains an abortion. The teenager may ask a judge to avoid telling her parent. As a presidential candidate, Clinton says he has "revised my opinion on parental notification to the extent I think that if a parent is not involved, that some caregiver ought to be involved." "If you're going to bypass the judicial system," he told MTV, "there ought to be school counselor, a religious counselor, a psychologist, someone who can help a child deal with the consequences of the aftermath."


An advocate of individual responsibility, Perot supports abortion rights and says he would sign the Freedom of Choice Act that would codify the protections of Roe v. Wade. His wife Margot, says abortion is probably the most important issue to her. She is a Planned Parenthood leader in Texas.

On unwanted children and abortion

"The saddest thing is the world is to bring a child into the world that noboady wants, and just leave them there," he told NBS's Today Show in May. "And that happens every day, as you know. But once you get past all that, it is the woman's decision."

On taxpayer-financed abortions

"Let's take it pragmatically from the taxpayers' point of view. It'd be far better to get that procedure done properly than to pay the huge cost that could occur from the infections and the problems that occur from doing it some other way."