Politics without abortion

January 31, 2000|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Being of sound mind and body, I expect to live long enough to hear a woman running for president asked what she would do if she found herself pregnant.

This is not merely because I am optimistic about the emergence of a female candidate for the Oval Office. It's because I'm pessimistic about the possibility that we will ever get abortion out of politics.

Over the past week, abortion has again become the most heated topic of the presidential primaries. It's dominated the Republican race even in New Hampshire, where the crucial independent voters are historically pro-choice. And it's given us a bitter little taste of the campaign to come.

Consider what happened to one of the prisoners of this war over reproductive rights, John McCain. On an icy morning in the Granite State, the self-described pro-lifer was surprised by the question once asked Dan Quayle: What would he do if his teen-age daughter were pregnant?

To the delight of reporters -- some of whom must believe that the candidates' daughters' menstrual cycles should be public information -- Mr. McCain actually answered. He said his daughter would have "the final decision." Then later he backpedaled and said it would be a "family decision."

He not only embarrassed his daughter Meghan and upset his wife Cindy, but offered a glimpse into the personal ambivalence harbored by many who, like McCain, are publicly pro-life.

This is not the first time for the Arizona senator. Last summer, he said that a repeal of Roe vs. Wade would push women to "dangerous and illegal operations."

But in the New Hampshire debate, hours after saying the decision would be up to his daughter, he bristled, "I've seen enough killing in my life. I know how precious human life is." This time he wasn't talking about women's lives.

Meanwhile George W., who gets that deer-in-the-headlights look every time he has to go off script, sounds like he's trapped between his (pro-life) dad and his (pro-choice) mom. On the one hand he says, "It's important for our party to maintain our pro-life position. " On the other hand he says, "Good people can disagree on this issue."

Asked in the recent debate to write a two-sentence constitutional amendment on abortion Bush tried this double-header: "It would be that every child born and unborn should be protected in the law. And every child should be welcomed in life." Alas, George W. didn't say how he plans to give every child a constitutional right to be "welcomed."

Alan Keyes, the Pat Buchanan of Campaign 2000, is unencumbered by such ambivalence. He compared poor Meghan McCain's hypothetical abortion to "killing her grandmother."

As for Mr. Keyes' 14-year-old daughter Maya? Remember those innocent days when you were sure your teen-agers would do whatever they were taught? Maya's silver-tongued father answered: "My daughter has been raised to believe that that's God's decision ... and therefore, I have no fear of what she would do."

Gary Bauer, the cherub at the tip of the right wing, is so pure on this issue that he hosted a media event at the Iowa grave of a fetus. Only it turned out that the fetus was probably stillborn, not aborted. It left some wondering if he planned a ban on miscarriage.

And Steve Forbes, who helped push this issue into the campaign spotlight? Well, back to the flat tax, Steve.

I'm hardly shocked to see the primary run to the hot issues. Like it or not -- and I don't -- it happens every time. While the Republicans were trying to pass the pro-life test, over at the Democratic debate, Bill Bradley was trying to out-pro-choice Al Gore. But this primary is a hint of what we'll see in the main event.

We already know that the man in the Oval Office can sign onto or veto all sorts of reproductive issues from insurance coverage for federal workers to international family planning funds. But this spring, the Supreme Court will rule on the so-called partial-birth abortion case, determining whether states can ban one abortion procedure at a time. This is a highly visible reminder that the next president decides who decides who has the right to decide.

Once again an all-male cast of presidential candidates is going to argue over the reproductive fate of women. Not just for their daughters, but for ours. As John McCain discovered, politics can get awfully personal.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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