Pro-life or just anti-McCain?

A new series of soft-money ads target John McCain's stance on abortion. Are they rooted in valid criticism or political vendetta?

Published January 14, 2000 5:44PM (EST)

"John McCain is anti-choice," says Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "He has a starkly anti-choice voting record. He has made it clear that he would end legal abortion and would use the power of the presidency to do so."

So why have pro-life political action committees started flooding the radio airwaves of New Hampshire and South Carolina with ads claiming otherwise? To hear them tell it, McCain is Edward Wirehanger-hands, a rabid beast who just can't wait to get his hands on the next available fetus.

This despite the fact that John McCain is about as pro-life as it gets. Since he was first elected to the House, in 1982, he's consistently voted that way. He's also sponsored pro-life legislation -- one bill that would make it a federal crime to transport a minor across state lines to get an abortion and avoid a parental consent law, for instance. He also introduced legislation prohibiting federally funded health insurance plans from funding abortions.

Tellingly, the ads don't mention McCain's record. Rather, they hang their argument on a thin nail of "evidence" that McCain is pro-choice. And from interviews with members of the pro-life community, it seems rather clear that their intent is to nail McCain, whose campaign finance reform legislation would imperil their power, rather than have a comprehensive and open discussion on the issue.

On Sunday in New Hampshire, the National Right to Life Committee's (NRLC) state affiliate, Citizens for Life, began running a radio ad that goes after McCain for an issue that has zero to do with abortion -- McCain's occasional wrestling matches with taste. The radio ad attacks McCain for borderline offensive jokes he's made in the past - one about Alzheimers ("The nice thing about Alzheimer's is you get to hide your own Easter eggs") and one calling the retirement community Leisure World "Seizure World."

In South Carolina, the ad -- jointly funded by NRLC PAC and its state affiliate, the South Carolina Citizens for Life PAC -- makes a lot of hay about a 1992 McCain vote in favor of overturning the ban on fetal tissue research. The ad, which began running on Monday, bemoans McCain's "flip-flop" on the 1992 ban. A closer examination of the vote shows it is a bad litmus test for pro-life credentials.

McCain did indeed flip-flop on what the ad calls "federal funding of medical experimentation that uses the body parts of aborted babies," but predictably the issue is rather murky. In early 1992, McCain opposed lifting the ban, but he changed his mind once he was lobbied by the family of former Sen. Mo Udall, D-Ariz., a mentor to McCain who was suffering from Parkinson's Disease.

Scientists researching a cure for Parkinson's depend on fetal tissue research, Udall's family argued, convincing not just McCain, but also staunch pro-lifers like South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, Kansas' Bob Dole, Utah's Jake Garn, New Mexico's Pete Domenici, Florida's Connie Mack and Alaska's Frank Murkowski.

"My abhorrence for the practice of abortion is unquestionable," McCain said at the time. "Yet, my abhorrence for these diseases and the suffering they cause is just as strong.''

Exhibit A in the South Carolina ads, however, is a quote from the Aug. 20 San Francisco Chronicle in which McCain says, "I'd love to see a point where (Roe vs. Wade) is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to (undergo) illegal and dangerous operations."

"John McCain wants South Carolina voters to think he's pro-life," a narrator says on the radio ad based on this quote. "But in California, he struck a different pose. Regarding the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion on demand, McCain told editors of the San Francisco Chronicle on Aug. 19, quote, 'Certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support the repeal of Roe vs. Wade.'"

Holly Gatling, executive director of the South Carolina Citizen's for Life PAC, accuses McCain of "playing both sides of the fence when he's on the East Coast trying to blow in the ear of Christian conservatives, or on the West Coast pandering to the 'pro-aborts.'"

"But what about pro-life South Carolina Republican Rep. Lindsey Graham," I ask. "He's a McCain backer, and he's pro-life and is on South Carolina TV ads saying McCain's pro-life."

"Lindsey Graham's been duped," Gatling says.

McCain spokesman Howard Opinksy, however, says that the quote was the result of a "confusing set of questions they [the reporters at the Chronicle] were asking at time about 'what if's and various hypotheticals. The smart answer probably would have been to avoid the hypotheticals. But McCain's always been in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade. He was trying to make it clear, if unartfully, that he wanted to work simultaneously to overturn Roe vs. Wade while reducing the number of abortions in America."

This slip-up probably stemmed from the McCain strategy, shared by Bush, to downplay his pro-life point of view. The message signals to pro-lifers that the candidate is committed to the cause, while pro-choicers walk away convinced that the candidate doesn't intend to do much about that fact. Both men have said that the country isn't ready for a pro-life amendment to the constitution. When asked, each declares his pro-life status and then immediately changes the subject to adoption. Neither will commit to picking a pro-life running mate or only nominating pro-life judges or Supreme Court justices.

"Both McCain and Bush are doing exactly the same thing," NARAL's Michelman says. "They're trying to keep the issue of reproductive freedom and choice from being a prominent issue in their campaigns. So they've been trying to keep their rhetoric soft so they don't frighten away general election, pro-choice, moderate voters."

The difference between Bush and McCain on this hedging is that Bush has gotten away with it.

"We think we've got five pro-life candidates, and then we've got McCain, who's been sending out signals that he'd be no threat to the status quo of legal abortions," says Douglas Johnson of the NRLC.

But isn't that exactly what Bush has been doing, in so many words?

"There are other things," Johnson says. "Whenever [McCain] is asked about it, he says he wants to move beyond the gridlock of abortion policy, and bring two sides together on things they can agree on, like foster care and adoption. The way he expresses it, it's a signal that he won't be a threat to the status quo."

"But Bush says the same thing," I say. "I've heard him! They have the exact same position."

"I know McCain's people suggest there's an equivalence," Johnson says, "but not to our ears. We've said that we think all of the other candidates are pro-life. We do see a distinction."

"Well, how do you feel when pro-life candidates like Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes can't get Bush to commit to appointing pro-life judges or a pro-life running mate?" I ask.

"I'm not going to say anything about other candidates beyond what I've said," Johnson says. "I think what I've said is sufficient." When discussing the fetal tissue research issue, Johnson refuses to
give me the name of any other allies who defected from the cause. It's clear that McCain's the only one he wants to talk
about. Or even name.

Johnson's refusal to say anything negative about anyone other than McCain -- including those he should find just as wishy-washy, like Bush or even Thurmond -- shouldn't come as a surprise, says McCain spokesman Opinksy. The NRLC has long been ardently opposed to McCain's activism on campaign finance reform, which would severely limit its power.

These attacks have "nothing to do with abortion," Opinksy says. "It's an attempt by various special interests to try to smear Sen. McCain's reputation and his outstanding commitment to the life issue. A new poll out today shows that McCain beats Gore by a larger margin than Bush does -- so John McCain is the best chance that the pro-life cause has in electing a president next year. But these groups see John McCain not as threat to their cause -- but as a threat to their business."

But Johnson pointed out that NARAL, public enemy No. 1 for abortion rights opponents, has blasted Bush while remaining silent on McCain. That, he said, should be evidence enough of Bush's strong abortion rights record, and an indication of McCain's softness, regardless of what the media says. "Our criteria is not always the same as those which concern the press," Johnson says. "Gov. Bush has been a very pro life governor." Johnson points out that NARAL has been denouncing Bush in ads, and suggests that the pro-choice group's silence on McCain says it all.

"They [NARAL] ran ads again Bush, they ran one ad each against Elizabeth Dole and Steve Forbes, but there has not been a word against McCain."

But NARAL's Michelman says that Johnson's "got his facts a bit wrong."

NARAL hasn't run ads against Forbes, she says, and it only ran its ad against Dole in March "when she was considered a very serious potential candidate. We have concentrated our paid advertising on George W. Bush's views ... because he is the front-runner. But certainly in all of our work with journalists and in public education we've been very aggressive about getting John McCain's anti-choice record out ... If John McCain begins to really take off and is a serious contender for nomination we will do what it takes to make sure people know that he is a serious threat to women's legal abortion and choice."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Abortion George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.