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WASHINGTON LETTER Aug-13-2004 (1,260 words) Backgrounder. With logos posted March 10 and photos posted today. xxxn

Campaign '04: Candidates present clear differences on abortion issue

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In the Catholic world, at least, few issues have gotten more attention than abortion during the 2004 presidential campaign.

But putting aside the question of Communion for Catholic politicians, no issue shows a clearer distinction between the major party candidates, Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

As president, Bush has signed the ban on partial-birth abortions, which his administration has defended against court challenges; signed the Born Alive Infants Protection Act; reinstituted the "Mexico City policy" that bars the use of U.S. foreign aid to promote abortions in other countries; denied federal funds to the U.N. Population Fund; and nominated pro-life federal judges.

Kerry voted six times against the partial-birth abortion ban; was a co-sponsor of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would have prohibited states from placing limits on abortion; opposes parental involvement in minors' abortion decisions; and has vowed to reverse the Mexico City policy and to "only appoint Supreme Court justices who will uphold a woman's right to choose."

"President Bush has compiled a record during his first term in office that can only be described as extraordinarily pro-life," said Steven Ertelt, editor and founder of LifeNews.com, in what he said was the Internet-based pro-life news service's "first-ever editorial."

"And when it comes to the key battles and judicial appointments over the next four years, only President Bush can be trusted to advance the cause of life," Ertelt added in the Aug. 3 editorial.

The National Right to Life Committee, which tracks the voting records of members of Congress on key pro-life legislation, gives Kerry a 2 percent pro-life voting record since 1984, saying he voted 92 out of 94 times against the position taken by the pro-life organization.

Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, joined the Senate in 1998 and has voted 11 out of 11 times against the National Right to Life Committee's position on abortion-related legislation.

Kerry and Edwards both get 100 percent, however, from organizations that support keeping abortion legal, including NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

In "Faithful Citizenship," their quadrennial statement issued every presidential election year since 1976, the U.S. bishops call abortion "the deliberate killing of a human being before birth" and say it is "never morally acceptable."

"We support constitutional protection for unborn human life, as well as legislative efforts to end abortion and euthanasia," they said. "We encourage the passage of laws and programs that promote childbirth and adoption over abortion and assist pregnant women and children."

More recently, in their June 18 statement on "Catholics in Political Life," the bishops said, "Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice.

"Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good," they added.

Christopher M. Duncan, chairman of the political science department at the Marianist-run University of Dayton in Ohio, said it is difficult to assess what role the abortion issue will play in the decisions of individual voters -- even Catholic voters -- in the 2004 presidential election.

"There is the hard-core group that I would call single-issue voters, and for them (the pro-life issue) is everything," he said in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

But he said most polls show that "Catholics mirror the general population in their opinions on abortion," with about 55 percent favoring keeping abortion legal in some circumstances -- most notably, to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest -- and fewer than 10 percent supporting the criminalization of abortion in all circumstances.

Catholics who identify themselves as weekly churchgoers are more likely to oppose abortion than those who say they go to church less frequently, Duncan added.

Because Kerry is Catholic, the abortion issue "has become more of an issue than it would have been" for another Democratic candidate, the political scientist said. "If he'd been a pro-choice Baptist or a pro-choice Methodist, he would not have had nearly the same kinds of questions coming his way."

But abortion's biggest role in this campaign may be as a "leveraging tool to suggest that John Kerry doesn't know what he believes in," Duncan said.

Kerry himself has contributed to that impression with conflicting -- and often confusing -- statements about when he believes life begins and how that belief affects his stand on abortion.

In early July, the Democratic candidate startled many of his followers -- and raised the hackles of his supporters who are working to keep abortion legal -- when he told the Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph Herald, "I oppose abortion, personally. I don't like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception."

But in follow-up interviews with ABC News and The Associated Press, Kerry said although he believed unborn children were "a form of life," they were "not the form of life that takes personhood in the terms that we have judged it to be in the past."

"My personal belief about what happens in the fertilization process is a human being is first formed and created, and that's when life begins," Kerry told ABC's Peter Jennings July 22. "Within weeks, you look and see the development of it, but that's not a person yet, and it's certainly not what somebody, in my judgment, ought to have the government of the United States intervening in."

Kerry's opponents have been able to use such comments to "call his genuineness into question," Duncan said.

But how much effect does a president really have on abortion policy?

In the U.S. system of checks and balances, where Congress passes legislation and the president simply signs or vetoes it, a president's influence can nevertheless be substantial.

Both President Bill Clinton and the current President Bush showed their understanding of that when, in their first days in office, they signed executive orders affecting U.S. abortion policy.

In five executive orders on Jan. 22, 1993, Clinton reversed the ban on abortion counseling in federal family planning clinics; overturned the moratorium on federally funded research involving the use of fetal tissue; ordered a study of the ban on import of the French abortion pill, RU-486, for personal use; revoked the prohibition on abortions in military hospitals overseas; and voided the Mexico City policy which had forbidden U.S. foreign aid funding of agencies promoting abortions.

Eight years later, Bush signed an order reinstating the Mexico City policy, which had been in place from 1984, when it was instituted by President Ronald Reagan, until Clinton's action.

Clinton also twice vetoed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, and Congress failed to override the vetoes. Bush signed the legislation into law last November.

But a president's most long-standing effect on abortion might be in his appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of the question.

Court observers say four justices -- Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Chief Justice William Rehnquist -- are likely to retire in the next four years. Kerry has said he would not appoint a Supreme Court justice who would vote to overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision on abortion.

LifeNews.com's Ertelt, in an Aug. 10 follow-up column to his editorial, said that likely turnover means that "the next president will have the power to determine whether abortion will remain legal for the next 30 years."


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