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Dole on abortion: a varied history

Published Aug. 2, 1996|Updated Sep. 16, 2005

Even now, there are snapshots of that fateful race Dr. Bill Roy recalls with crystal clarity.

The Debate, is one.

"I remember, it was a pretty day. I was at a friend's house and I laid down and slept," says Roy, leaning back in a tall leather chair as he weaves his non-fiction tale.

It was Sept. 21, 1974. Roy and U.S. Sen. Bob Dole were to meet at the Hutchinson State Fair. Roy should have been worried. Dole was the powerful incumbent and national party chairman; he picked the format (Lincoln-Douglas) and chose the topic (agriculture).

"I was fresh and relaxed," Roy recalls. "I knew what I was going to say."

Roy kept to his plan, hitting Dole for supporting elimination of the Department of Agriculture. Dole, meanwhile, stammered as his mother, Bina, nervously watched.

"I pretty well demolished him, I think," Roy says, still savoring his strong performance of 22 years ago. "Well, at least for the first 28 minutes."

Then Dole posed a stunning final question, asking the obstetrician why he performed abortions.

This time it was Roy's turn to stammer.

Sitting now in his spacious Topeka living room on a warm summer day in 1996, Roy's memory blurs. "I don't have any idea what I said in the closing statement."

But what Dole said was unforgettable: "You heard him, he's for abortion on demand."

Caught in the cross-fire

It's no secret how the 1974 race turned out. Dole won a second term and has been unbeatable in Kansas ever since.

Roy left politics, returned to medicine and retired recently. Now 70, white-haired and spry, he travels the globe with his wife and grandchildren.

Dole, at 73, has reached the pinnacle of politics _ and is hoping for more. In August, he travels to San Diego to become the Republican presidential nominee.

At precisely the time Dole hopes to bask in the national spotlight, many of his party's most visible members are threatening to mar the moment. Activists on both sides say when they meet to debate the GOP platform, they are ready for battle. Certain to be caught in the cross-fire is Dole.

Beginning Aug. 5, members of the platform committee will wrangle over Dole's proposal to declare the Republican Party simultaneously "pro-life" and "tolerant" of other views on the subject.

Abortion-rights advocates say they will fight to knock out the abortion plank because it is a moral, not a political, issue.

Anti-abortion-rights activists want to kill or rewrite Dole's "tolerance plank," saying they don't like being singled out by their own party.

Dole's legislative record is anti-abortion from start to finish. Yet at each crossroad in America's abortion saga during the past 25 years, Dole has chosen a murky path. Even now, when he talks about abortion, it comes out jumbled.

Asked in March if he thought abortion was murder, Dole responded: "I don't know. Well, obviously, it's taking a life. I voted in 1983 to say there's no constitutional right to abortion. . . . I have supported a constitutional amendment with three exceptions."

The abortion proposal being debated in San Diego is quintessential Dole.

"This reflects his kind of pragmatic, fundamentally non-ideological viewpoint," says David O'Brien, co-author of Abortion and American Politics. "For Dole, his career has been compromise; getting something done is more important than ideological positions."

Pressing the debate

When Bob Dole entered Congress in 1961, abortion was hardly a hot topic.

In 1969, as Dole began his Senate career, Kansas Republicans helped pass a state law permitting abortion. Many doctors, including Roy, welcomed the news.

"We'd been cleaning up back-alley abortions our entire career," Roy says, recalling his own training at a public hospital in Detroit. "I've had the experience of seeing a woman dead on arrival from abortion."

Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade that women had a constitutional right to abortion. Dole made no mention of the ruling.

But he was talking about it the following year as he struggled to retain his job in the anti-Republican atmosphere of Watergate.

Although Dole started 1974 far ahead of Roy, a lesser-known two-term House member, the challenger quickly gained ground and by fall was leading in the polls. That's when Dole pressed for the debate.

"Dole was determined this was going to be the thing that turned the campaign around for him," Roy says. "Perhaps in retrospect, it was."

A few thousand people crammed into an outdoor arena normally used for livestock judging. "It was raucous," Roy recalls.

From the debate on, the race degenerated into one of the most venomous in Kansas history. Anti-abortion activists picketed Roy, calling him "baby killer." Roy and the Democrats raised baseless charges about Dole's role in Watergate.

Newspaper ads and leaflets contained gruesome images of dead fetuses. "Don't elect an abortionist," read one. "Vote Dole," said another.

Dole has long disavowed the anti-abortion tactics, but evidence surfaced in later years linking his campaign to the materials. In a television interview in 1976, as Gerald Ford's running mate, Dole acknowledged he told students at Kansas Catholic schools to urge their parents to ask Roy how many abortions he performed.

"I think that's a good question if you're a doctor," he said.

Nobody can say for certain what decided that race, but in rare moments, in the right setting, Dole himself pays tribute to the role abortion played in his political career.

"I have a flawless record of protecting the unborn," Dole told members of the South Carolina Christian Coalition in March. "In fact, the first time this issue was an issue was in my race in Kansas in 1974. Think back about it _ go back and look at the record, and you'll find that when abortion first became a national issue was at my re-election in 1974."

Energized by Reagan

Six years after Dole embraced the anti-abortion movement to hang on to his Senate seat, it was Ronald Reagan who had taken up the banner.

"He put together fiscal conservatives, national defense people and pro-lifers," says Phyllis Schlafly, head of the conservative Eagle Forum. "That's the winning coalition."

Dole, by then an emerging force on Capitol Hill, focused on other matters.

In a lengthy interview with the Los Angeles Times in January 1980, he was asked about abortion.

"Well, I went out in '76 and said there ought to be a constitutional amendment _ I've never figured out how you word the amendment, that's been the hangup _ are there exceptions? What are the exceptions? Rape, incest, life of the mother?" he said. "It's just one of those questions I just wish would go away. It's hard to deal with, but my record is consistent."

Then he was asked if he felt strongly about abortion.

"It's a moral conviction, a moral conviction; I don't have any religious _ it's not based on my religion," he replied. "It's one of those very personal, delicate issues that most of us try not to deal with."

During this period, Dole routinely voted against spending federal money on abortion _ whether it was for poor women on Medicaid or for federal employees buying government health insurance. He did take to the Senate floor to urge a compromise on Medicaid funding.

Energized by Reagan, Republicans in Congress used the 1980s to make their strongest stand ever against Roe. In 1982, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., offered a bill outlawing abortion, which Dole supported.

The following year, 10 years after Roe, the Senate voted on a constitutional amendment that would have let states regulate abortion.

Again, Dole tried to strike the middle ground, arguing that he still opposed abortion but feared 50 separate state laws were not workable.

"I have serious reservations about the divisive influence which the amendment could have on the nation," he said on the floor June 28, 1983.

In the end, Dole voted for the amendment, saying: "Only by engaging in this kind of debate will we ever be able to seek out and find the right solution to the abortion question."

The Webster ruling

On July 3, 1989, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of some limits on abortion in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services. It was the first time in 16 years the court rescinded some of the rights granted women in Roe vs. Wade.

"Webster was sort of a wake-up call to the pro-choice side," says Debra Dodson, who tracks the abortion issue at the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.

The significance of the Webster ruling went beyond legal affairs.

"Prior to 1989 (voters) felt it didn't matter what a politician's view was because the protection was there under Roe vs. Wade," says Susan Cullman, chairman of the Republican Coalition for Choice.

One particularly volatile issue was a ban on counseling women who become pregnant. The gag rule, passed in the Reagan administration, made it illegal for medical employees at federally funded clinics to discuss abortion with clients.

The gag rule was "watershed," says Tanya Melich, author of The Republican War Against Women. "It was going after the right of doctors and nurses to practice their profession."

Dole, then the minority leader, supported the counseling ban but expressed doubts.

"While I strongly believe that abortion is not family planning and should not be encouraged, we should take the greatest care in regulating the deeply personal and confidential relationship between providers and patients," he said on Nov. 7, 1990. "I regret that no compromise could be reached with the administration on this issue."

Abortion-rights supporters say the Webster ruling, the gag rule and a divided Republican convention in Houston contributed to Bush's defeat in 1992.

"In 1992, the damage was done by Pat Buchanan and others that put a very narrow-minded-looking face on the Republican Party," says GOP Rep. James Greenwood, a moderate Pennsylvanian who wants to remove the abortion plank.

But abortion opponents say Republicans lose when they ignore the party's evangelical base.

In 1994, says Schlafly, "people who care about pro-life came in and voted for Republicans," and the GOP regained control of the House.

The '96 campaign

Today _ despite his solid anti-abortion voting record _ Dole's rhetoric on the issue has been consistently confusing. When he first decided to put tolerance language in the abortion plank, he went on TV to make his intentions clear.

"It's not negotiable, it's the decision," he said on June 10. "It's probably going to be in the abortion plank, not in the preamble."

One month later, his non-negotiable decision had been renegotiated, and Dole announced the two would be separate.

"The Republican Party should maintain its commitment to protecting the unborn," he said on July 12. "We are also a party that is tolerant of those who do not share our view on every issue."

During the primaries, conservatives were delighted with his prominent role in defeating Surgeon General-nominee Henry Foster. Yet they were miffed when he refused at the annual Christian Coalition convention to sign a pledge keeping the anti-abortion plank.

His vacillating over the platform has enraged the most ardent abortion opponents.

"Everybody has certain capital reserves of grace," says Kristi Hamrick, spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a conservative grass-roots organization. "His have been wearing a little thin."

The frustration of anti-abortion Republicans with Dole can be matched only by those on the other side.

"He has always presented himself as an anti-choice candidate and anti-choice senator, but I really never believed it," says Peggy Jarman, spokeswoman for the ProChoice Action League in Kansas. Dole's compromise on the platform "is indicative of where he's always been with this issue _ from a political place, not a moral or religious place."

The abortion plank, the same as in previous years, would imprison people who perform or receive an abortion. It rejects public funding for abortion under any circumstances and urges selection of anti-abortion judges. Dole also wants to add a sentence opposing emergency late-term terminations known as partial-birth abortions.

"These are extreme measures that don't even reflect Sen. Dole's views," says Cullman, noting that while Dole has supported exceptions in the event of rape, incest or life of the mother, the constitutional amendment leaves no room for exceptions.

Dole hoped that by inserting a separate tolerance plank, he would appease the abortion-rights forces. Instead, both sides are upset.

"What they gave us in big print, they took away in little print," says Bill Price, president of Texans United for Life. "Most of us did not join the Republican Party because it was tolerant of abortion or tolerant of homosexuals."

Again, the master legislator finds himself navigating rocky shoals.

Will Pat Buchanan, having been denied a speaking slot in San Diego, disrupt the proceedings?

Can Dole name a running mate who satisfies all the party's factions?

Most significantly, can the GOP ticket attract female voters?

"Bob Dole has a gender gap," says Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine and member of the platform committee. "It's not necessarily Bob Dole's problem as much as it is the Republican Party's problem. You can't win an election with a 22-point differential on the women's vote.

"In and of itself, people don't vote on singular issues," she says. "This is about the perception it creates about the Republican Party. If Republicans keep driving an agenda of social issues, it creates a lot of skepticism about the Republican Party."

Back in Kansas

At home in Topeka, Bill Roy is hardly surprised by the current abortion controversy.

In his admittedly biased analysis, Roy thinks Dole no longer sees abortion as the "winning issue" it was for him in 1974.

"I think he had absolutely no personal beliefs one way or the other on abortion," Roy concludes. "Abortion's a club or a sword and whichever way it cuts, he'll cut it."

_ Times news researcher John Martin contributed to his report.

Excerpt from anti-abortion plank in the GOP platform:

"We believe the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children. We oppose using public revenues for abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it. We commend those who provide alternatives to abortion by meeting the needs of mothers and offering adoption services. We reaffirm our support for appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life. And we support swift passage of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, despite President Clinton's indefensible veto."

Excerpt from

tolerance plank in

the GOP platform:

"While the Party remains steadfast in its commitment to advancing its historic principles and ideals, we also recognize that members of our party have deeply-held and sometimes differing views on issues of personal conscience like abortion and capital punishment. We view this diversity of views as a source of strength, not as a sign of weakness, and we welcome into our ranks all Americans who may hold differing positions on these and other issues. Recognizing that tolerance is a virtue, we are committed to resolving our differences in a spirit of civility, hope, and mutual respect."

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