The Republican Candidates’ Abortion Problem

"I haven’t sorted out the penalties…of course there’s got to be some penalties to enforce the law, whatever they may be." So spoke George H.W. Bush, in one of the major gaffes of his first presidential run in 1988, during a debate with his opponent, Michael Dukakis. Bush, who had only recently begun to trumpet his antiabortion sentiments to dubious Republican social conservatives, was responding to a question about appropriate punishment for women who would obtain illegal abortions should Roe v Wade be overturned. The next morning, after frantic late night discussions, Bush’s handlers called the press for a "clarification." Bush meant to say doctors who performed abortions, not women who received them, should be jailed in such a situation.

Twenty years later, Mike Huckabee, running for the Republican nomination, makes no such missteps. With none of the discomfort that Bush I showed, Huckabee at his rallies gets the party line of the antiabortion movement right: if Roe is overturned, doctors who perform abortions should be punished, while the recipients of such abortions must be seen as "victims."

But Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher and the candidate of choice of evangelicals, is an exception in the clarity and consistency of his position on abortion. There is a long history of "evolution" on abortion from politicians in both parties. For example, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, both from Southern states, had mixed records of support for abortion early in their careers before they each went on to become staunch allies of the abortion rights movement. But in the campaign of 2008, it is mainly the Republican candidates who are squirming.

Mitt Romney’s notorious flip-flops on the issue–reminiscent of another hapless Massachusetts politician, Romney was for abortion before he was against it–-may ultimately be seen as a key factor that led to voter disillusion with his candidacy.

Rudy Giuliani, who is attempting the daunting task of winning a Republican nomination with a record of support for abortion and gay rights, astonished observers across the political spectrum with his nonchalance when he stated, in response to a question about his feelings were Roe to be overturned: “It’d be ok to repeal it. It would also be ok if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent.”

Fred Thompson, in the early stages of his campaign, first denied and then admitted that he had worked briefly as a lobbyist for an abortion rights group. The “straight-talking” John McCain has also changed his position on abortion. Several years ago, he was on record as saying reversing Roe would not be a good idea, because of the likelihood of women resorting to illegal and dangerous abortions; today, he calls for the immediate overturning of Roe.

The abortion issues in the Democratic campaign have thus far been much more low profile. To be sure, Dennis Kucinich, who for most of his political career was against abortion, suddenly became converted to a prochoice position when he first ran for president. And in the final days of the New Hampshire primary, the Clinton campaign sent out a mailing accusing Obama of not being a sufficiently reliable prochoice vote when he served in the Illinois legislature.

But in fact, the positions of the top three Democratic candidates are nearly identical on abortion. All three spoke out against the most recent Supreme Court decision on abortion, Gonzales v Carhart, announced in April 2007–decrying the fact that for the first time the Court held that an exception to protect the health of a woman was not constitutionally necessary in abortion legislation. But since Gonzales also upheld a ban on intact Dilation and Extraction, a rarely used method of performing certain second trimester abortions– sensationalized by opponents as “partial birth abortions”–-it is certain that antiabortion forces will target whoever becomes the Democratic nominee for his or her statement on that case.

So how big a role will abortion play in the upcoming election? An economy in recession, not to mention ongoing wars in two fronts, presumably will command far more attention than abortion. But abortion plays too central a role in American politics to disappear altogether as an issue. In particular, if Mike Huckabee is the nominee (or, more likely, the vice presidential candidate), then abortion will inevitably have a higher profile. Even if Huckabee is not on the ticket, if either McCain or Giuliani becomes the presidential nominees, he will likely choose a running mate who can energize the Religious Right segment of the party–and that means talking about abortion.

What can the Democrats do? This time around, the Democratic candidates have an excellent opportunity to do more than be defensive about their support for abortion, especially the controversy around later abortions, which account for a tiny proportion of all abortions performed in the U.S.(90% of all abortions occur within the first ten weeks of pregnancy and less than 2% occur after 20 weeks).

The record of the Bush presidency with regard to sexual and reproductive policies is so egregious, because of the relentless quest to please the Religious Right, that there is a real opening to expose the extent to which the Republican party is out of step with mainstream values of the American electorate.

If baited about "partial birth abortions," here is how a nominee might respond. "Leading medical organizations have testified that sometimes this banned method is the safest one for the woman–and I want women to have access to the safest procedure possible. But this infrequently used procedure is not the main issue here. I want to know if my opponent, should he be president, will continue to support abstinence only sex education–on which our government has wasted over a billion dollars to date, and which has repeatedly been shown to be ineffective. I want to know if my opponent, on record as opposing abortions, will continue George Bush’s policy of cutting funding for family planning programs? I want to know if my opponent agrees with the Bush policy of posting incorrect information about condom effectiveness and other reproductive health issues on government websites? I want to know if my opponent will continue with the Bush policy of making one third of all U.S. HIV/AIDS assistance funds in the developing world go to abstinence programs–-a policy decried by public health experts? And since we are talking about reproductive issues, why is my opponent on record as supporting George Bush’s veto of the expansion of S-Chip–-that wonderful health care program for children?"

In short, abortion is best defended when it is discussed in the context of a larger vision of reproductive justice–one that speaks to the many different ways a compassionate government can help its citizens to achieve the family lives they wish for. And the woeful Bush record of the last seven years offers a perfect opportunity to present this vision.

This article originally appeared on the Beacon Broadside.

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  • invalid-0

    around reproductive and sexual health is one of the most important take-aways from this article.

    Carol, your challenge to the candidates to refuse the tired abortion bait which only serves to dilute the broader message that sexual and reproductive health and rights is about so much more than just abortion, is brilliant.

    We need to continue to expand the discussion so that people understand that “reproductive rights” does not equal abortion – it’s not a single issue we’re talking about. There are a multitude of issues and priorities within those issues that must be addressed by our candidates and Carol lays those out so clearly: sexual health education, contraception, HIV/AIDS prevention programs and funding issues, and maternal health to name a few.

    This goes for both Republicans and Democrats – all of our candidates should be challenged to look beyond the political rhetoric and be clear about where they stand on a range of reproductive and sexual health and justice issues.

  • invalid-0

    If I had been living back when US law allowed slaves to be tortured or killed on a whim…permitted slave children to be sold away from their mothers…called people with black skin subhuman…I would have voted only on that one issue.

    You can argue about what social programs the government is responsible for, about which uses our army is best put to, about the appropriate level of educational funding.

    Murdering the innocent, that is not a gray area. We all know people are held back from murder at times only by the law and force. Abortion is murder in which the government does not intervene and we all know it…some of us don’t care. We all know the issue isn’t that the woman’s life might be at risk. We know that really, it is her convenience and the economic stress that prompts abortion.

    I am ashamed of what my fellow women have done with their freedom and rights in this age.

    I will, futile as it seems, stand against the new American horror…the murder of the unborn for convenience, for economics, for pleasure.

    By women, for women, and to the discredit of women.

    It is THE issue of our times. It is THE issue upon which I will vote.

  • invalid-0

    Let us discuss the murdered futures of women because draconian anti abortion laws forced them to become mothers when they weren’t prepared. Slavery was wrong because it denied blacks bodily autonomy. Restrictive anti abortion laws are also wrong because they deny women our bodily autonomy. There is something seriously amiss when politicians decide for us that a fetus has more bodily autonomy.

  • invalid-0

    When anti-choicers compare legal abortion to slavery, I just want to laugh in their faces. I think the only thing that keeps me from doing so is the realization that they’re serious.

    You’re the side saying that women have no right to bodily domain and should be forced to carry their pregnancies to term regardless of will or consent, and you’re calling US the slave-masters? Please!

  • invalid-0

    Before Roe, women and young girls with an unwanted pregnancy had no choice but to carry the pregnancy to term. Plenty of them, economically powerless, were manipulated into giving up their offspring to richer people who could pay social workers and adoption agency fees. That was slavery.

  • invalid-0

    If you really want to prevent abortions, you should also want to prevent unintended pregnancy. Less unintended pregnancy, less abortion, be it legal or illegal. Making abortion illegal won’t stop it from happening. People break the law every day. The only way to really stop abortion is to make sure that every baby is a wanted baby. Make sure that adoption services are well-funded and accessible. Make sure that contraception is readily available and that youth are educated about it. Make sure that pregnancies are intentional and you will eliminate the need for abortions. Even if you make abortion illegal, it will never really stop unless you provide people with other options.
    So if you really mean what you say, and you want to stop abortion, please support family planning, gay adoption rights, comprehensive sex ed, paternity leave, equal employment rights for mothers (see and the numerous ways to prevent abortion besides banning it.

  • invalid-0

    didn’t stop the manufacture and consumption of alcohol. It’s primary unintended affect was to line the pockets of organized crime. And I fear a similar effect would result from a ban on abortion: illegal actions can bring someone a lot of money and organized crime will step into the business of providing illegal abortions with relish.
    They will certainly charge more money and be less concerned with the health of women receiving the abortions.

  • invalid-0

    Its irresponsible to say that abortion is the “only really important issue of our day.” All issues are important to someone – otherwise they wouldnt’ be brought up. For you, and for a lot of people, abortion may be the one issue you let supercede all other issues; but that is a matter of opinion, and cannot be applied universally.

  • invalid-0

    It wasn’t just a restriction on bodily autonomy that made slavery wrong. It was the very institution of who the government/society deemed worthy of equality that allowed slavery to take place. This institution said that certain people weren’t equal, and therefore oppression (through the form of slavery) was OK.