Bench Memos

Tell the Whole Story

Froma Harrop of the Providence Journal seems to believe that John McCain’s pro-life stance is mere positioning for electoral advantage, and that Democrats should consider that a vote for him really wouldn’t threaten the survival of Roe v. Wade.  That’s actually two propositions, but let’s consider the first.  Harrop writes:

In a 1999 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, McCain said, “I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America” to undergo “illegal and dangerous operations.”

Harrop goes on to say that “last year, McCain said that Roe should be overturned.  Primary politics or a change of mind?”  It’s plain she strongly suspects the former.  But Harrop’s history is incomplete, giving the impression that McCain current position that “Roe should be overturned” is one at which he recently arrived, eight long years after his remarks to the SF Chronicle, and coinciding with the renewal of his presidential ambitions.

Here’s the fuller history.  On Thursday, August 20, 1999, the Chronicle printed a story on its editors’ meeting with McCain, and ran a sidebar titled “John McCain: In His Own Words,” the first item of which was:

On abortion: “I’d love to see a point where (Roe vs. Wade) is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary.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 force X number of women in America to (undergo) illegal and dangerous operations.”  McCain said he would support legislation banning abortions in the third trimester.

This leans more pro-life than Harrop’s brief version.  And the fact that (as the Chronicle paraphrased him) McCain supported a ban on late-term abortions suggests that in 1999 he still suffered from the all too common misunderstanding that Roe provided an unfettered right only to obtain early abortions.  But Roe has meant abortion on demand through the entire duration of any pregnancy ever since it was decided in 1973, and so even McCain’s desired legislation would have required the overturning of Roe.  This was, quite possibly, a confused candidate. 

Harrop is right to recall that these statements cost him something in the pivotal South Carolina primary in 2000.  But she doesn’t finish the story from 1999.  Five days after that first story, on Tuesday, August 25, the Chronicle ran a follow-up.  It reported he had been on Wolf Blitzer’s Sunday show and

said he favors the ultimate repeal of Roe vs. Wade, “but we all know, and it’s obvious, that if we repeal Roe vs. Wade tomorrow, thousands of young American women would be (undergoing) illegal and dangerous operations.”

From a pro-life point of view, this was some movement in the right direction but not enough.  The next day, Monday (same Chronicle story again), “McCain’s campaign released a clarification”:

I have always believed in the importance of the repeal of Roe vs. Wade, and as president, I would work toward its repeal. . . . But that . . . must take place in conjunction with a sustained effort to reduce the number of abortions performed in America.

I will continue to work with pro-life and pro-choice Americans so that we can eliminate the need for abortions.

Finally, for this Chronicle story on August 25, McCain, while insisting the GOP be “an inclusionary party,” stated in an interview that “yes, I want to repeal Roe vs. Wade.” 

Despite or perhaps even partly because of these “clarifications,” McCain had a bad week over this issue that summer, with rivals calling him “unintelligible” and conservative columnists decrying a betrayal of McCain’s own strongly pro-life record.  And it was a fairly long-lasting albatross in the 2000 contest, maybe a large part of the reason he lost to George W. Bush.  But with some perspective now, viewing the whole course of McCain’s career on this issue, it looks like an aberration, not a key to some tightly-held “moderate” views on abortion.  More likely it was an ill-judged tactical maneuver, in which McCain dipped his toe in the waters of a “big tent” strategy within the GOP, and even was thinking ahead to a general election campaign.  (It was only August 1999, after all, and the Bush juggernaut was not yet so apparent.)

I don’t have a window on John McCain’s soul on this matter.  Maybe he is privately as heterodox on it as Harrop insinuates.  But McCain’s publicly stated view that Roe should be overturned is not of 2007 vintage, as she seems to want us to believe.  It is the repeatedly stated view of the candidate over many years, with the exception of a moment in August 1999, which now looks like a blip on an otherwise consistent graph.  And if he “soften[s]” that view now to go after “Hillary Democrats,” as Harrop thinks is possible, he would be the loser for it, not the gainer.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

Most Popular