McCain Makes Conflicting Statements on Abortion

By NRLC Federal Legislative Office

WASHINGTON (Sept. 13, 1999) -- Senator John McCain (R-Az.), a leading contender for the Republican nomination for President, said on August 19, "Certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade," the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on demand.

After NRLC and others voiced sharp objections, McCain shifted his ground somewhat, saying that if elected President, he would "work toward" the overturning of Roe. But McCain's "clarifying" statements have been murky, and have raised more questions than they answered.

The current controversy began with statements by McCain reported in two different publications. The first of these appeared in the August 21 edition of the evangelical news magazine World, which reported in a profile of McCain: "Though he [McCain] insists he, personally, is 'morally pro-life,' he said he would try to ensure that no voter felt 'excluded' from the GOP. 'I would not seek to overturn Roe vs. Wade tomorrow,' he continued, because doing so would endanger the lives of women. He . . . said he wants to change hearts on the abortion issue before changing any laws."

About the same time that magazine reached subscribers, on August 19, McCain was interviewed by the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle. McCain again expressed opposition to reversing Roe, and offered a more detail rationale for that position. McCain's statement, as published in the paper's August 20 edition, was as follows: "I'd love to see a point where it [Roe v. Wade] is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to (undergo) illegal and dangerous operations."

NRLC Executive Director David O'Steen commented, "In contending that legal abortion is 'necessary' and that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned because it would 'force' women to undergo dangerous illegal abortions, McCain parroted the arguments of the pro-abortion movement. A candidate who argues that legal abortion is 'necessary' is not a pro-life candidate."

NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson was also sharply critical of McCain's statement, noting, "In effect, McCain said that he wouldn't support overturning Roe because people still wanted to obtain abortions, but if at some far future date people didn't 'need' abortions anymore and Roe was therefore 'irrelevant,' then at that point it would be okay with him to overturn it. It appears that McCain was trying to signal that if he were elected President, Roe would be safe."

McCain's comments were understood the same way by the pro-abortion editorial board of the Washington Post, which on August 24 commended McCain who, the Post noted with approval, "unleashes a powerful argument in favor of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion."

Flip Flop?

McCain's statements reported in World and the Chronicle were directly contradictory to earlier statements in which he professed opposition to Roe and strong support for restoration of legal protection for unborn children. For example, on February 25, 1998, McCain sent a letter to the nation's Roman Catholic bishops, in which he wrote, "I am a life long, ardent supporter of unborn children's right to life. . . . I salute the [Catholic] Church's efforts to protect unborn children, and pledge my continued help in your efforts." [The complete text of McCain's 1998 letter is found on the NRLC website at]

Moreover, on July 22, 1998, McCain filled out, signed, and returned NRLC's 1998 Congressional Candidate Questionnaire, on which McCain was asked, "Do you support the complete reversal of the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions, thereby allowing the state legislatures and the Congress to once again protect unborn children?" McCain responded, "Yes." If Roe v. Wade were overturned, state legislatures and Congress would once again have legal authority to protect unborn children from abortion. On the same questionnaire, McCain responded that he believed that abortion should be legal only "to prevent the mother's death, in cases of incest, and in reported cases of forcible rape."

Muddled "Clarifications"

When NRLC promptly took note of and objected to McCain's pro-Roe statements, the initial response by McCain's campaign staff was to tell individual reporters that McCain's statements were similar to those of Texas Governor George Bush, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. NRLC responded that such a claim was false, since Bush has consistently favored the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and also supports a constitutional amendment to make abortion illegal (except to save the life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest).

McCain then began to "clarify" his position, in a series of muddled and confusing statements on the subject. In a written statement issued on August 22, McCain said, "I have always believed in the importance of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and as President, I would work toward its repeal. . . . but [I believe] that it must take place in conjunction with a sustained effort to reduce the number of abortions performed in America. If Roe v. Wade were repealed tomorrow, it would force thousands of young women to undergo dangerous and illegal operations. I will continue to work with both pro-life and pro-choice Americans so that we can eliminate the need for abortions to be performed in this country."

"The National Right to Life Committee vigorously disagrees with McCain's repeated assertion that there is a 'need' to kill unborn children," commented NRLC's O'Steen. In an August 23 letter from McCain to NRLC President Wanda Franz, he wrote: "I have always believed in the importance of the repeal of Roe vs. Wade, and as President, I would work toward its repeal," McCain wrote. He did not repeat -- but neither did he explain or withdraw -- his previous statements that there is a "need" for abortion and that overturning Roe would "force" women to seek dangerous illegal abortions.

On August 26, McCain said, "I have a moral belief that life begins at inception." On August 31, at a news conference in New Hampshire, McCain said that if elected president, he would "immediately support efforts to move in (the) direction" of banning abortion.

On September 12, on NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert read McCain his August 19 statement to the San Francisco Chronicle and then asked, "Would President McCain support the repeal of Roe v. Wade in the short term?" McCain responded, "I would support the movement in that direction, and I believe that this goal that we all seek -- what I'm trying to say here is that we need a dialogue in America and in our party between pro-life and pro-choice people, maintaining our pro-life position as a party so we can achieve the goal that both pro-choice and pro-life people seek. . . . There are many areas we can work together -- adoption, foster care, education."

Abortion Pill

McCain also has recently made apparently contradictory statements regarding the RU 486 abortion pill. The Sacramento (Ca.) Bee reported on August 25, "When asked about RU-486 [the abortion pill] . . . McCain initially indicated he had no problem with its use. However, an aide later provided a McCain statement that said the senator had 'strong reservations' about the pill, 'unless there is clear scientific evidence that it serves a beneficial medical purpose other than inducing abortions.'" But a September 8 Associated Press, reporting on "a wide-ranging interview" with McCain, contained this passage: "Asked his position on abortion-inducing drugs like the French pill RU-486, McCain passed. 'I have to take a look at that,' he said." (In June, the House of Representatives voted to bar the Food and Drug Administration from approving the drug for sale in the U.S., but the Senate has not yet voted on that issue.)

Fetal-Tissue Experimentation

During his 16 years in Congress, McCain has usually voted in accord with the pro-life position. However, there have been some important exceptions. McCain has been an active supporter of the use of federal funds for experimentation utilizing tissue taken from aborted babies. The most recent occasion on which that issue came before the Senate was in 1997, when pro-life Senator Dan Coats (R-In.) attempted to prevent federal funding of abortion- dependent fetal-tissue research for Parkinson's disease. McCain led the opposition to the Coats amendment, which was defeated. In a 1992 letter defending his earlier votes in favor of federal funding of abortion-dependent fetal-tissue experimentation, McCain wrote, "I feel that Congress must act affirmatively to support research to save lives, using tissue obtained through a practice which is currently legal in this country." McCain this month reaffirmed his support for federal funding of such experimentation in an interview with the Associated Press.

Free Speech

McCain is the chief sponsor of a "campaign reform" bill that would, among other things, heavily regulate communications by issue-oriented groups (such as NRLC and NRLC affiliates) regarding the positions and voting records of those who hold or seek federal office. The bill is strongly opposed by NRLC, and also by many other issue-oriented groups, including the Christian Coalition and Concerned Women for America.

In his August interview with World magazine, McCain continued to defend his position that legal restrictions should be placed on communications that comment on the positions on issues of members of Congress and congressional candidates. Referring to "all issue advocacy groups," McCain said, "If they want to advocate a particular issue, that's fine, but when they enter into a campaign for or against a candidate, then they're violating the intent of the law."

The above article appeared in the September 14, 1999 edition of National Right to Life News. [For detailed information on the ways in which McCain's bill would restrict NRLC and other pro-life groups, see the NRLC website at]

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