STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's report, next, on the debate over abortion in the Republican presidential campaign. Both former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are questioning each other's records on abortion as they campaign in conservative South Carolina. Each has ads up accusing the other of being less anti-abortion than he seems. We asked NPR's Julie Rovner to have a look at the facts.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: The ad attacking Gingrich covers a lot of subjects. It's actually sponsored by a super PAC run by former Romney aides, not by the Romney campaign itself. Here's the part dealing with abortion.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: As speaker, Gingrich even supported taxpayer funding of some abortions.

ROVNER: And here's part of the ad the Gingrich campaign is now running against Romney.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Romney appointed a pro-abortion judge, expanded access to abortion pills, put Planned Parenthood on a state medical board, but failed to put a pro-life group on the same board. And Romney signed government-mandated health care with taxpayer-funded abortions.

ROVNER: Listening to the ads, you might think these two candidates support abortion rights. But that's hardly the case, says Donna Crane. She's policy director of the group NARAL Pro-Choice America.

DONNA CRANE: The idea that either of these candidates is in any way remotely pro-choice would be laughable, if it weren't actually so dangerous for women.

ROVNER: We asked three different anti-abortion groups for their view of the Republican ad wars, but they all declined to get involved in the intraparty dispute. University of Pittsburgh law professor David Garrow says the main charge in the ad attacking Gingrich...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Gingrich even supported taxpayer funding of some abortions.

ROVNER: ...may technically be true, but it's still inaccurate.

DAVID GARROW: When that advertisement says, quote, some abortions, unquote, it's knowingly avoiding the fact that the measure that Gingrich supported, sponsored by a well-known, right-to-life, anti-abortion congressman, Henry Hyde, would have had the effect of removing financial support from 97, 8, 9 percent of abortions.

ROVNER: Meanwhile, Gingrich's ad blasting Romney is more complicated because Romney, when he was running for governor, claimed to support abortion rights. It was during his term that he said he'd changed his mind on the subject. But even so, Romney can't be blamed, or take credit, for some of the things in the ad, says NARAL's Donna Crane. For example, this charge:

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And Romney signed government-mandated health care with taxpayer-funded abortions.

ROVNER: Yes, the Massachusetts health law pays for abortion, but so did the program it replaced. And that's largely because the state's supreme court said the state's constitution required it, Crane says.

CRANE: If the charge is, does Massachusetts care for its low-income women? Then yes, guilty as charged. Massachusetts has a good policy in that regard. But it's not attributable, one way or the other, to Mitt Romney.

ROVNER: And this reference?

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: ...expanded access to abortion pills.

ROVNER: That's really a reference to the morning-after birth control pill. And while Romney did sign one bill to make those pills more available, he also vetoed one that would have required their availability for rape victims. Still, in the end, Pittsburgh law professor and abortion scholar Garrow thinks the ad might actually help Romney should he, as expected, become the GOP nominee.

GARROW: So to the extent that the Gingrich campaign, or Gingrich-supportive superPACs, are attacking Romney as a dangerous moderate, they may well be serving him in very good stead for the long run.

ROVNER: Which is, of course, exactly the opposite of what Romney's conservative opponents are trying to do.

Julie Rovner, NPR News.

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