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A question about Viagra has played a role in the presidential campaign. The question was directed at Senator John McCain. It drove at issues of fairness between men and women. It also relates to the topic of abortion, a subject that makes a difference in hotly contested states. It's a subject that both major party candidates have approached a little awkwardly. Here's NPR's Julie Rovner.

JULIE ROVNER: McCain's difficult moment began a couple of weeks ago. Carly Fiorina, one of his top advisers, complained about health insurance plans that cover Viagra for men but not prescription birth control for women.

Two days later, a reporter on McCain's bus asked him about Fiorina's comments - and about his Senate vote against legislation to require insurance coverage for contraception.

Unidentified Woman: I guess her statement was that it was unfair that health insurance companies cover Viagra but not birth control. Do you have an opinion on that?

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I don't know enough about it to give you an informed answer, because I don't recall the vote. I cast thousands of votes in the Senate.

ROVNER: McCain looked very, very uncomfortable. And if you haven't seen that footage, chances are you will. Planned Parenthood has already turned it into a television ad.

Abortion rights groups are trying to demonstrate that while McCain may be a moderate on many issues, reproductive health is not one of them. Nancy Keenan is president of the group NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Ms. NANCY KEENAN (NARAL Pro-Choice America): On the issue of reproductive choice, he's neither a moderate nor a maverick - he's wrong. And I think we will work very hard to make sure that people in this country understand how extreme he is on this issue.

ROVNER: McCain's abortion position is not something he's tried to keep secret.

Unidentified Man: How do you feel about overturning Roe vs. Wade?

Senator MCCAIN: I do not support Roe v. Wade. It should be overturned.

ROVNER: And if he's elected president, McCain has said he'll choose Supreme Court justices like those who've already cast votes to restrict abortion rights.

Senator MCCAIN: I will look for people in the cast of John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and my friend, the late William Rehnquist - jurists of the highest caliber.

ROVNER: Even so, McCain is still seen as suspect by many Christian evangelical voters. He supports embryonic stem cell research, for example, which makes him less than 100 percent pro-life. But he does have the unequivocal support of the biggest anti-abortion group, the National Right to Life Committee. David O'Steen is the group's executive director.

Mr. DAVID O'STEEN (National Right to Life Committee): He has a strong pro-life record against abortion. He voted to ban partial-birth abortion. He opposes using taxpayer funds to pay for abortion. He supports parental notification.

ROVNER: Democrat Barack Obama's pro-choice position is pretty much the polar opposite of McCain's.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): What I have said is, is that women should make the decision in consultation with their priest or pastor, their doctor, their family members, and in consultation with their beliefs. And I believe that most women don't make that decision lightly.

ROVNER: Obama got in a little trouble of his own on the issue earlier this month. In an interview with the Christian magazine Relevant, Obama seemed to suggest he was open to putting limits on health exceptions for later abortions.

Senator OBAMA: I have repeatedly said that I think it is entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions, as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don't think that mental distress qualifies as health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, in which, you know, there would be real significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term.

ROVNER: That prompted a few complaints from feminists, including some who questioned Obama's pro-choice voting record during his years in the Illinois State Senate. But mainstream groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood are essentially looking the other way.

NARAL's Nancy Keenan called the comment...

Ms. KEENAN: One of those moments that just happens, that it's misinterpreted, he is right on the health exception, and he is right on reproductive choice, and he is going to be there for us 100 percent.

ROVNER: And National Right to Life's David O'Steen says Obama is being disingenuous in even suggesting he would support stricter health exceptions. That's because he also supports past Supreme Court decisions and current bills in Congress that would allow health exceptions simply for mental distress.

Mr. O'STEEN: So for him then to turn around, to hedge and pull back and indicate that he doesn't support abortion for mental health reasons, while he's pledged so strongly to Doe and Roe and cosponsored the Freedom of Choice Act, just doesn't hold water.

ROVNER: What this all means is that neither candidate needs to worry about their base on this issue, but both have potential weaknesses: McCain with more moderate women and Obama with Hillary Clinton's supporters, still suspicious of his feminist credentials.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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