ANALYSIS: Abortion still a vital issue in presidential campaign

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--Among the rhetoric that has dripped from the lips of the Democratic Party's seven remaining presidential candidates, scarcely more than a sentence or two has pertained to one of the great moral issues of our day.

Talk of the war in Iraq, the once-ailing economy and supposed tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans has eclipsed the discussion of abortion. In fact, many of the candidates have relegated their opinions on abortion to the far corners of their official websites. The candidates want to focus on the economy and jobs because they understand that most Americans tend to vote with their pocketbooks, rather than with their consciences.

There are two tiers of candidates among the Democrats in this race for the White House. There are those who actually stand a chance of receiving the Democratic nomination or, at the very least, a chance as the nominee for vice president. At this point, it seems likely that the Democratic ticket will feature Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, even though Edwards regularly has said that he doesn't want the number two slot.

Such an observation is scientific by no means, but the pairing seems likely given Kerry's need to invigorate middle-aged southern Democrats.

Howard Dean and Wesley Clark may remain in the race, but it will not be surprising to see their dreams of serving as chief executive vanish after "Super Tuesday" March 2.

The second tier of candidates are those who may or may not remain in the race, but who will find their support dropping to 1 or 2 percent of the electorate. Because of their poor showings in the Iowa, New Hampshire and other primaries, print and television news media will largely ignore them. The media, however, will provide ample coverage of the news conferences at which they each will fall on their political swords.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Sen. Joseph Lieberman and the Rev. Al Sharpton are in this group, though none would ever admit it.

That leaves the first tier of candidates: Kerry, Dean, Clark and Edwards. Where does each of the four top candidates stand on abortion?

Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry are the only two candidates with voting records at the national level. Both voted against banning partial-birth abortion [S 1692] and voted against a bill that would maintain a ban on abortions on military bases abroad [S 2549].

On his website, Kerry, self-described as the "only candidate who can beat Bush," said he believes the Constitution protects women's rights "to choose and to make their own decisions in consultation with their doctor, their conscience and their God." Kerry apparently borrowed the line from Lieberman's comments during the 2000 vice presidential debate.

Kerry went on to say that he would defend abortion rights as president. "He recently announced he will support only pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court," the website noted.

Edwards, described by some as a devout Methodist, has shied away from extensive discussions of abortion rights. He claimed on his website on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade that he would block any attempt to turn back the Supreme Court ruling. Describing the decision as the perfect "balance," Edwards said he had a "million reasons" to stop President Bush and the White House from jeopardizing a woman's right to an abortion.

Retired General Wesley Clark said on CNN's "Crossfire" in August 2003 that he wasn't certain that he would sign a bill banning partial-birth abortion that, at the time, was being batted around in Congress. "I don't know whether I'd sign the bill or not." He said he was not familiar with the details of the procedure. "In general, I'm pro-life -- excuse me, I'm pro-abortion rights," Clark said.

Clark's website offers greater clarity. He opposes the ban on late-term abortions, opposes parental notification laws, would lift the ban on federal funding for abortions, would allow military personnel to receive abortions at military bases abroad and would support the funding of abortion services in Third World countries. During his New Hampshire campaign, Clark was quoted by The Union Leader in Manchester as saying, "Life begins with the mother's decision."

Described as the most pro-choice candidate, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has a long record of favoring abortion rights and even has personal experience in the field. A former medical doctor, Dean worked with Planned Parenthood during his training as an internist, according to Mary Hahn Beerworth, director of Vermont Right to Life. Dean has claimed that while he fully comprehends abortion procedures, he has never performed one.

Dean urged President George W. Bush not to sign the partial-birth abortion bill early in November 2003. In a statement issued Nov. 5, Dean said that "this law will chill the practice of medicine and endanger the health of countless women. Despite what politicians tell you, there is not an epidemic of third trimester abortions in this country. This legislation chips away women's constitutionally protected reproductive rights with the ultimate goal of overturning Roe v. Wade."

Dean has served as a board member of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and has passionately pled for abortion rights. In July 2003, Dean said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that prohibiting abortion on demand is "none of the government's business."

On the other hand, President Bush's position on abortion has been clearly established during his tenure in the White House. While it is often dangerous to identify any candidate with "the Christian position" on any issue, Bush has applied his Christian faith to the issue of abortion.

In January 2001, Bush prohibited the distribution of funds to international groups that use abortion as a method of population control. In doing so, he re-enacted a policy established by former President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Former President Bill Clinton had restored abortion funding to international groups two days after taking his oath of office in 1993.

While governor of Texas in 1998, Bush said he supported reducing the number of abortions through abstinence education. He has continued to sound the tone of abstinence and adoption for unwanted children. In 2000, Bush pledged to fight for a partial-birth abortion ban. He signed the bill into law in November 2003. In December 2003, the president signed a bill making it easier for childless couples to adopt unwanted children.

I look forward to the day when any candidate is bold enough in faith and moral fortitude to describe abortion for what it is. It is the ultimate act of selfishness and irresponsibility. It punishes the innocent for the sins of the guilty.

I also hope that the discussion of abortion will be a primary issue for debate during the remainder of the Democratic campaign. The more the four top candidates speak on the issue, the more they will expose the moral weakness of their positions on the issue of abortion.


Gregory Tomlin is director of communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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