Political Candidates Weigh Positions on Abortion Ruling

The Supreme Court's decision to uphold a ban on the so-called "partial-birth abortion" has once again brought the issue to the political arena. Some 2008 presidential candidates are already responding.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Abortion rights opponents and supporters acknowledge yesterday's ruling was a direct result of President Bush's replacement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with Justice Samuel Alito.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And both sides predict that the ruling will encourage state legislators around the country to push other bans on abortion procedures, although they disagreed about which side would gain a political advantage from the decision.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The decision seemed to surprise neither side in the abortion debate, and both sides reacted as if they had their press releases pre-written and on the shelf for months. Every Republican presidential candidate, including abortion rights supporter Rudy Giuliani, praised the decision. Every Democratic candidate condemned it. Abortion rights opponents like Southern Baptist leader Dr. Richard Land hailed the decision as a great victory.

Dr. RICHARD LAND (Leader, Southern Baptist Convention): This is a tremendous day for justice. It's a tremendous day for the unborn. It's a tremendous day for America.

LIASSON: And the Christian Coalition issued a statement celebrating the decision as the beginning of the end of Roe versus Wade. On the other side, the reaction was a mirror image. Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro Choice America, deplored the decision as the beginning of the end of Roe versus Wade.

Ms. NANCY KEENAN (President, NARAL Pro Choice America): I think it was a victory for George W. Bush and a loss for women's health and privacy. Bush's appointments to the court have moved it in a direction that indeed could further undermine Roe v Wade.

LIASSON: And that's a prospect that Dr. Land hopes will put some political oomph back into the anti-abortion rights movement as it seized its ultimate goal of overturning Roe only one vote short on the Supreme Court.

Dr. LAND: I think it energizes pro-lifers because their hard work and strong support of President George W. Bush has now been paid back with bonus and dividend par excellence. Nothing has offended them as much as partial-birth abortion.

Partial-birth abortion is the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of the pro-life movement.

LIASSON: In recent years, voters who opposed abortion rights have been more likely to be motivated by this one issue than abortion rights supporters. But NARAL's Nancy Keenan thinks the Supreme Court decision could shift the balance of political energy and activism to her side.

Ms. KEENAN: We have an election in '08, where we come back and throw the John Sununu out, where we throw Norm Coleman out, where we throw Pete Domenici and Gordon Smith out, because they all supported this ban.

LIASSON: Senator Sununu, Coleman, Domenici and Smith are all Republicans up for reelection in 2008. They will be targeted by abortion rights groups not only because they voted for the ban but because of their votes for President Bush's Supreme Court nominees. Abortion will now have a higher profile in the presidential race as well. Yesterday, Democratic candidates who have not been stressing rights on the stump issued strongly worded statements. John Edwards, for example, said it was a reminder of why Democrats cannot afford to lose the 2008 election.

The polarizing sound of the debate yesterday was a departure for Democrats. Until the ruling, party leaders have been trying to find a middle ground on the issue, saying abortion should be safe and legal but also pushing legislation to make it less frequent by focusing on contraception and other ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Former Clinton administration domestic policy official Bill Galston says the Supreme Court decision will make that approach harder to pursue.

Mr. BILL GALSTON (Former Domestic Policy Official): Does this help to establish a new middle ground in the abortion debate? Politically speaking, certainly in the short term. But the answer to that question is no. As we've seen in recent hours, the leaders and presidential contenders of one political party felt compelled all to go in one direction and the other party all in the other direction. And you're not going to hear a lot of voices in the middle anytime soon.

LIASSON: But in fact, public opinion may be in the middle. Majorities tell pollsters they think abortion should be legal, but they also approved of some restrictions. A ban on the procedure the court refers to as partial-birth abortion, for example, has majority support, but so does an exception to the ban that would protect the health of the mother. That health exception was where abortion rights supporters had chosen to make their stand. Now that the court has ruled the health exception unnecessary, advocates of abortion rights will have to rethink their strategy.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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