Political Hay

A Pro-Life Chinese Puzzle

How will they deal with the McCain candidacy?

By 2.27.08

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Pro-life political activists are in a bind. They successfully fought off Rudy Giuliani's bid for the Republican nomination only to end up with Giuliani-lite John McCain. They may be quietly praying for a Huckabee-sized miracle.

Groups like the National Right to Life Committee have traditionally played ball with lackluster Republicans. Their position is that mediocre but electable Republicans are far better than hostile Democrats. Thus they have not coolly supported a candidate as being merely the lesser of two evils. They want him to win, so they try to generate enthusiasm among grassroots abortion opponents. NRLC hailed Bob Dole as a pro-life champion in 1996, despite Dole's serious flaws including his move to weaken the GOP's pro-life platform.

Rallying behind a pro-life pretender can create a credibility problem for pro-life groups. As the Republican gets worse, the spin necessary to praise him increases. With McCain this spin must increase exponentially, because pro-life leaders torched their bridges with McCain in the 2000 campaign. Their primary motivation was McCain's campaign finance reform, which drastically hindered pro-life advertising during election season. But in attacking McCain's position on election ads, pro-lifers uncovered many more substantive reasons not to trust him, and those reasons largely hold true in 2008.

Current pro-McCain spin emphasizes his high percentage pro-life voting record. In 2000, however, Douglas Johnson of NRLC rejected this argument in a bluntly-titled article "How John McCain Threatens the Pro-Life Cause." Johnson emphasized that "for a presidential candidate, [voting record] is not the only important dat[um]... [and] there have been some important exceptions."

MOST NOTABLE AMONG those exceptions was McCain's support throughout the 1990s for federal funding of experimentation on abortion victims. Not just embryos, but preborn children of all ages. Research on fetal organs and tissues still occurs routinely today. And since 2000 McCain remained consistent on this basic idea, by supporting funding for human embryonic stem cell research.

McCain's current pro-life backers such as Sen. Sam Brownback and Notre Dame Law Prof. Gerard Bradley suggest that McCain might oppose funding HESCR because new research offers alternative sources for stem cells. Yet even that unlikely change would leave untouched McCain's support for tax funding of every other abortion experiment.

The pro-life movement has made Supreme Court appointments its primary goal, and McCain now places new emphasis on appointing judges in the mold of Roberts and Alito. Notably he doesn't mention Thomas and Scalia much anymore, who unlike Roberts and Alito have publicly opposed Roe v. Wade. Recently multiple sources have confirmed that McCain dissed even Alito as too conservative to nominate.

NRLC's Johnson identified further cause for concern over judicial appointments by highlighting McCain's support for Sen. Warren Rudman as Attorney General. Rudman played a central role in the nomination of conservative nemesis Justice David Souter, and Rudman blasted pro-life Republicans as "zealots" and "bigots." McCain's Rudman connection corroborates his weakness on judicial appointments.

McCain's support for Rudman also reveals the harm that a Republican President can do to the pro-life cause if he appoints abortion supporters in the executive branch. The Attorney General can influence important court cases for or against the free speech rights of pro-life advocates. Heads of departments affecting the medical industry, such as HHS, NIH, or the CDC, can facilitate or derail efforts like the approval of abortion-inducing drugs and the monitoring of abortion practice.

The tangible flaws in McCain's pro-life record do not disappear by him repeatedly calling himself pro-life or using catch phrases about "strict constructionist" judges. Thus if pro-life leaders dubiously praise McCain as pro-life they threaten their own credibility. If they plainly criticize his troubling record they risk a McCain loss due to an unenthusiastic voting base, or if he wins they may forfeit a seat at his advisers' table.

THERE ARE THREE WAYS out of this Chinese puzzle. First, pro-life leaders could rally their grassroots in Saul Alinsky-like fashion, not for McCain, but merely against Clinton or Obama and all the evils that come with them: universal government-funded abortion, the Freedom of Choice Act, and three more Ruth Bader Ginsburgs.

Or McCain himself could remedy his poor record. He could announce not only a pro-life Attorney General and Vice President, but also an active strategy to put Democrats on the defensive over popular abortion restrictions (as proposed by Prof. Hadley Arkes). He could further commit to a freeze on federal funding of abortion- or embryo-experimentation, and to judicial nominees that are socially conservative rather than merely judicially conservative.

Failing that, a third escape for the pro-life movement would be divine intervention that gives pro-life stalwart Mike Huckabee the Republican nomination. The former Baptist minister should expect some "Hail Marys" being tossed in his direction.

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About the Author

Matt Bowman is a constitutional law attorney in Washington, D.C.