Where does Elizabeth Dole really stand on abortion?

The question won't go away.

Published March 24, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

If there's one issue Elizabeth Dole is expert at ducking, it's abortion. So when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked her what her position was, during a January interview to hype her presidential hopes a day after her resignation as Red Cross chief, she had an evasive sound bite ready. "It's an important issue. There are many other important issues. But I do feel that's for another day, Wolf," she said.

Blitzer let Dole off the hook, saying, "We can respect that." Two months later, she was still dodging abortion questions: "We're going to be laying out positions on all of these issues. But we want to do it in a thoughtful way, right?" she told supporters at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa. She then scrapped the traditional post-event press conference, just as she did when announcing her campaign exploratory committee in Manchester, N.H., a fortnight ago.

Abortion is to moderate Republicans what tax increases are to Democrats -- the gift that keeps on giving to the wrong party. It's a no-win issue: Candidates who fall short of a fire-breathing anti-abortion stance incur the wrath of the GOP's most committed conservative organizers and voters, but those who adopt that stance risk losing the national election. It isn't surprising, then, that both Dole and her chief rival for the 2000 Republican nomination, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, have historically held wishy-washy positions on abortion, and both have squirmed when prodded for their current abortion views. Until last week, both had gotten away with their fence-sitting -- but no more. Bush's stance recently drew searing criticism from anti-abortion crusader James Dobson, director of Focus on the Family. "Bush claims to be pro-life, but so have other people who've gone before him and wound up showing no commitment to defend unborn children ... Don't give us double-talk. Tell us if you'll support pro-life judges."

The heat isn't just coming from the pro-life forces. This week the pro-choice National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League will begin airing television spots in Iowa and New Hampshire criticizing the murky pro-life stances Dole and Bush have taken to date. The NARAL media campaign will move to New York and California soon. "The freedom to choose stands among the most important freedoms in our nation, and today that fundamental freedom of American women is under serious attack," says NARAL executive director Kate Michelman. "We cannot allow a single American to be fooled about the potential positions of a presidential candidate."

The high-profile pressure is forcing Dole to address an issue she'd rather avoid. Her reticence about abortion is legendary. During a 30-year career in public service -- including stints at the Federal Trade Commission in the '70s, as an aide to President Ronald Reagan and, later, as one of the few female Cabinet secretaries in the Reagan and Bush administrations -- Dole has avoided discussing abortion in interviews, as if prescient about how immortal and easily retrievable a politician's words would become with the rise of the Internet and ubiquitous electronic archives.

"I think it's just about the most difficult question there is and one I'm still wrestling with," Dole told a New York Times reporter in 1980. With droning precision, she repeated the same line (or slight variations) for nearly a decade.

Abortion "does not impact my area," she told UPI in 1981. "I don't have a neat answer to that one ... I feel it's one of the most difficult questions I've had to face."

In 1984, she went a little further in another UPI interview: "The ERA and abortion are not issues that create a gender gap. Interestingly, men and women do not divide sharply on those issues." But she declined the opportunity to elaborate on her own stance. Three years later in the Washington Monthly, she continued her apparently endless, Hamlet-like struggle with the issue. "It's the toughest question I have ever had to wrestle with, and frankly I am still wrestling with it."

Finally, that same year, the wrestling was over, and she was ready to go public with her abortion views. She told Newsday in 1990 that, like then-President George Bush, "I'm pro-life," but asserted that, as labor secretary, "It wasn't an issue." Abortion didn't come up again until Dole joined her husband on the '96 campaign trail. That year, she gave a New York Post reporter her most candid remarks yet. Asked whether she supported a constitutional ban on abortion, she replied: "Yes, uh-huh. There are three exceptions [that we support]: life of the mother, rape and incest. I have been pro-life. That's it. There's nothing more to say." Dole publicly embraced the Republican Party platform in 1996, which included a plank calling for a constitutional ban on abortion. She told the New York Times she shared her husband's stance: "I'm where he is -- I'm pro-life."

One has to wonder how, and why, Dole was able to keep her abortion views mum for so long. "Whether someone was pro-life or pro-choice wasn't an issue until the end of the Reagan years," insists Wendy Borcherdt, a Los Angeles Republican political consultant and former Dole aide. "Reagan's primary concerns were economics, military and foreign policy. We didn't deal with a lot of social issues. Everyone knew Reagan and the party's position on abortion. If there was anything we were pressured on, it was how many women were in government and appointed to positions of responsibility."

In fact, abortion was a vital issue during the Reagan-Bush years, when the burgeoning anti-abortion movement had the ear of the president and conservative legislators. Steady attacks on abortion rights started with the so-called Hyde Amendment, first introduced by Henry Hyde, R-Ill., in 1977 and renewed each subsequent year after Reagan's election, which banned the use of federal Medicaid money to pay for abortions for poor women. Congress also passed a bill banning the use of government health insurance to pay for federal employee abortions in 1983.

The same year, the Senate considered a bill that would have imposed a constitutional ban on abortion (it was narrowly defeated). Throughout his presidency, Reagan used an anti-abortion litmus test for selecting judicial nominees. Bush, who wavered slightly on his abortion stance (he told the Washington Post he didn't support a constitutional ban in 1980) and made a few abortion-related missteps early in his term, later applied the same test for nominees. It was during the Bush administration, when a conservative majority in the Supreme Court had finally been reached, that Roe vs. Wade got its first serious high-court challenge. The resulting majority decision in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services trimmed abortion rights.

Given this context, it's amazing that Dole was given a pass on the topic. Carolyn Mulford, who wrote a biography of Dole for young adults, says she didn't even raise the abortion question while interviewing Dole earlier this decade because she had been so evasive in the press clippings Mulford had read. "She said the same thing again and again, so when I interviewed her, I didn't ask her about it because I thought I would get the same reply."

But in 1996, a reporter asked Mulford why Dole had been evasive. "My interpretation was that she simply didn't want to give her views and probably didn't want to give them because they differed slightly from Bob's. I'm assuming that she was slightly more liberal than he was on the issue." When that interpretation appeared in an article, "I got a call from Elizabeth's office," Mulford recalls, "and they said she had been avoiding the question."

People who knew or worked with Dole in the early '80s say that she was always quiet about abortion because it wasn't an area of policy that affected her work at the departments of Transportation and Labor.

"Elizabeth is pro-life, but she hasn't held political positions where it was necessary for her to address the issue," says her nephew, John Hanford, a minister. "I know that she did come out and support Bob on this issue during his campaign." Hanford also said that abortion is "not an issue that she discusses with her family," and he wouldn't speculate whether Dole would make judicial appointments or support legislation that would result in the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.

But others have. Her pollster, Linda DiVall, told the New York Times, "I don't know that she wants to overturn the law of the land." DiVall would not elaborate for Salon. "I really don't have anything further to say on that. Mrs. Dole, I'm sure, will unveil her position, and I'm going to wait for that." In the current issue of Newsweek, the first clues emerged that Dole may no longer support the 1996 Republican platform plank that sought a constitutional ban on all abortions. Unnamed Dole advisors told the newsweekly that when she finally does address abortion, she will likely state that she's "personally pro-life," and would support legislation to reduce the "incidences" of abortion. One advisor told Newsweek that Dole "knows what she wants to say, but just isn't eager to say it."

"Elizabeth Dole is pro-life," her spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told Salon on Monday. But he declined to state whether Dole supports a constitutional ban on abortion, or would make judicial appointments that would lead to overturning Roe vs. Wade. So far the only concrete proposal she's on record supporting is a ban on late-term, so-called "partial birth" abortion. "Mrs. Dole thinks this issue is so sensitive and important that she will answer all these questions in her own words and in her own way and she will do it in short order."

"She recognizes that she'll need to fill in all the details on abortion," Fleischer continued. "But she has told everybody in crystal-clear language where she stands. It's the voters' right to know, but she hasn't exactly been greeted by protesters at her well-attended events carrying signs that say, 'Start campaigning earlier.'"

But abortion rights advocates, as well as some conservative activists, are saying exactly that. "They've taken the first steps in their campaigns and already they are stepping away from their records on choice, or they are refusing to address the issue. That's unacceptable," said NARAL president Kate Michelman. "The position of a candidate on choice tells people a lot about what kind of people that candidate is -- what kind of priorities they will have and what kind of policies they will pursue. It's an important issue."

Meanwhile, conservatives are trying to push Dole to the right. In an e-mail sent to conservative activists in early March, former Christian Coalition national operations director Chuck Cunningham lambasted Dole for hiring Linda DiVall, whom he described as "the left's favorite Republican pollster" to work on her campaign, Time magazine reported last week. DiVall has worked with abortion advocacy and gay rights groups in the past, affiliations certain to raise the dander of conservatives.

So far, all 11 likely GOP presidential contenders are technically pro-life, but the depth of their political commitment to the issue varies. Commentator Pat Buchanan, Family Research Council head Gary Bauer, former Vice President Dan Quayle, ex-Ambassador Alan Keyes, publisher Steve Forbes, Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire have all said they support a constitutional ban on abortion. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander doesn't support a federal ban, instead suggesting state-by-state efforts to limit it. George W. Bush announced earlier this month that he, too, was pro-life, but added that because there wasn't broad enough public support to ban abortion outright, he supported restrictions on certain types of abortion.

If New York Gov. George Pataki enters the race, he would become the sole pro-choice candidate for the GOP nomination. Appearing on dueling Sunday morning talk shows last weekend, contenders Buchanan and Forbes railed at the New York governor. Forbes said Pataki's stance would disqualify him as a possible running mate for the conservative publisher. Buchanan said any attempt to remove the abortion plank, which has been a part of the GOP platform since 1980, would "start a civil war."

Bush has also drawn fire, of course, most notably from James Dobson, for his tepid opposition to abortion. But Dobson's view isn't universal among conservative leaders. "We might as well take the incremental approach," Pat Robertson said on CNN's "Larry King Live," arguing that until the Supreme Court makeup is changed, Bush's strategy is sound. David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, released a statement that said: "Governor Bush has a pro-life record and has taken a pro-life position," and called for abortion foes to "refrain from attacking pro-life presidential candidates." And despite Buchanan's call for civil war, there's still no consensus that the 2000 Republican platform will contain the '96 call for a constitutional ban on abortion.

The abortion issue could be toughest for Dole, who wants to capitalize on being the first serious female presidential candidate, but will lose feminist support if she comes out strongly against abortion rights. On issues besides abortion, Dole has won some feminist plaudits. Working in the Reagan and Bush administrations, she was credited with increasing the number of female political appointments, improving pension plans for women, and introducing one of the federal government's first on-site day-care centers for working mothers at the Transportation Department.

A former women's rights lobbyist who worked closely with Dole when she headed Reagan's Task Force on Legal Equity for Women praised Dole as a "trendsetter" and "quite progressive" in the early Reagan years, and spoke glowingly of Dole's record in promoting women's economic issues. Dole's efforts to reach out to women's groups atrophied in the late '80s, she said, in part because gender constituencies became less important to her work at the Transportation and Labor departments, and possibly because of her Christian rebirth. The lobbyist doesn't expect Dole to make curtailing abortion a central issue. Although Bob Dole often supported anti-abortion legislation, "He really wasn't passionate about the issue," says the lobbyist, who declined to be named because her nonprofit organization cannot comment on political candidates. Given the opportunity, would he have overturned Roe vs. Wade? "No. But I don't think Elizabeth would either."

But not all feminists share a positive view of Dole. "She's our Clarence Thomas," Gloria Steinem said in a speech recently. "We need someone who represents women ... which Elizabeth Dole doesn't."

"There are people understandably excited about a woman running for the presidency," said NARAL's Michelman. "But just as women in this country have fought for years against double standards, we cannot now start applying a double standard just because the candidate is a woman. We have to require that all of the candidates must be held to the same standard -- that they must be committed to protecting women's fundamental liberties, most importantly the right to choose. And she is not."

And some of Dole's female critics come from the right. Dole's political evasiveness has led conservative columnist Arianna Huffington to compare her to Scarlett O'Hara, the "Gone With the Wind" heroine known for ducking ethical dilemmas. "Positions? Definitions? Fiddle-dee-dee, as Scarlett might have said," Huffington wrote last week. "Tomorrow is another day. But tomorrow is too late for presidential contenders to define why they're running."

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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