Gore's play on abortion

February 03, 2000|By William F. Buckley Jr.

THE PRIMARY in New Hampshire notwithstanding, candidate Al Gore can't hope to have buried the history of his variable stands on abortion.

As late as primary day itself, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by abortion enthusiast Faye Wattleton, whose greatest fear is that the very subject should actually be put up for political discussion since, manifestly, it isn't a political question at all. "The right to abortion is a private issue. It shouldn't be a political football that candidates can kick around at will."

The New York Post's Vincent Morris and Deborah Orin had nicely framed the question, reviewing two letters written by Candidate Gore to his constituents while in the House of Representatives. The issue, they point out correctly, evolves less as what were/are Mr. Gore's views on the abortion issue than what was/is Gore's attachment to telling the truth.

In the '80s, a young graduate of Harvard Law School came up with an emancipating point. The writer of the majority decision in Roe vs. Wade had said that the nature of a fetus hadn't been defined, leaving open the question whether it was a "person." Well, said Stephen Galebach, why not ask Congress to decide whether it is a person? The motion did not carry, but Mr. Gore voted in the House to define a "person" in civil-rights laws to include unborn children from the moment of conception.

In what seemed a panicked defense, Mr. Gore told reporters in New Hampshire that in the letters to his constituents he had used the word "arguably" on the question whether a fetus was human life. He wishes now that he hadn't. Why not? Using round numbers, approximately half of the American people believe that abortion is wrong. Why? If the fetus were (to borrow the image from an inventive commentator) a tomato, then there would be no reason at all for the discussion. True, you can rule some questions as out of the boundaries of arguability. If your neighbor appears on your doorstep wearing a tricornered hat, rings the bell, and announces that he is Napoleon, what do you do? You smile, call him Your Majesty, and wink at your wife to call the ambulance. It is not an "arguable" question whether your caller is or isn't Napoleon.

It is at the very least arguable that a fetus that one minute later, having detached from the womb of his mother, possesses inarguably the protections of the Bill of Rights as a human being, was a human being one minute earlier. But the question is likely to pause less on the question whether the fetus as human, than on Al Gore as self-serving manipulator.

Ms. Wattelton, though annoyed with Mr. Gore for having been unorthodox in years gone by, provides him a little cover. She tells her readers that Ronald Reagan used to be pro-choice, as also was George (the former president) Bush. It is true that Governor Reagan signed a permissive abortion bill, but Ms. Wattelton fails to record (perhaps she isn't aware of it?) that in his private journals in future years he deeply bemoaned having done so. Those journals were not written for reporters to read before a primary vote. And Mr. Bush did change his position. It is fair to say, in a world where opportunism is the presumptive motive, that he was prompted to do so by political considerations in 1980. But fair also to say that hard thought on the issue brought him around, and that his conversion was arguably sincere.

The trouble Al Gore gives is the fortified presumption that his policy positions are opportunistic for the simple reason that he disguises his record in order to curry favor with the target constituency. This is a real problem for the vice president. Why couldn't he have said that, back in 1984, he gave serious thought to the possibility that a fetus was human. But that now, political ice ages later, he believes that the women's reproductive-rights constituency has the better of the argument. The central problem is that those who want political power are, in most cases, drawn to temporize when giving views different from those disclosed by the pollsters as representing the views of the majority. There are political moments when the mandate comes in athwart of political opinion, and then one treads desperately on the tightrope, as Abraham Lincoln did, devoted to the emancipation of the slaves, and to the doctrine of self-government.

Mr. Gore has failed to justify the confidence owed to those who sincerely wrestle with the polarizing demands of conscience and ambition.

William F. Buckley is a syndicated columnist.

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