It is the quiet issue of the 2004 presidential election, but it remains etched in the minds of many liberals and conservatives, of the most devout secularist and most pious believer: abortion. Among the left, a John F. Kerry victory would be viewed as not just a win for Democrats but a huge victory for legalized abortion, just as a Bush re-election would be a continuing triumph for forces allied against legalized abortion.
Consider what President George W. Bush has done to slow abortion’s long march: Before his inauguration in 2001, Bush spoke privately with Colin Powell. He told the pro-choice Powell that as secretary of state he would be expected to purge any vestiges of the Clinton State Department’s program to promote global abortion rights. Powell agreed to follow Bush’s lead.
On his first day in office, Bush authorized a ban on all US funding of international abortion rights groups, reversing President Clinton’s executive order. He appointed pro-lifers to key Cabinet posts, such as John Ashcroft as attorney general and Tommy Thompson as secretary of health and human services.
In August 2002, he signed the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which provides for the protection of a child who survives an abortion. Now, that child must be protected rather than destroyed by a doctor or nurse, regardless of whether his or her birth was desired. For decades, infants who survived abortions were left to die.
In January 2003, Bush signed the “Sanctity of Life” bill. Especially significant, he did not veto the Republican Senate’s March 2003 ban on partial-birth abortion, which President Clinton had repeatedly blocked. For the two years prior to that ban, the Bush Justice Department had lent support to local efforts to prohibit partial-birth abortion at the state level. Eventually, in November 2003, he signed the partial-birth abortion ban passed by Congress.
It was telling when a few months later at the Solemn Mass for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC the largest Catholic chapel in the United States a packed throng of anguished Catholic faithful, kneeling in prayer after taking Holy Communion, listened intently while the presiding bishop closed the Mass with a surprise message from the Protestant president. When the Bush letter acknowledged the ban on partial-birth abortion, the solemnity was interrupted with a burst of applause. The most recent polls show that pro-life Catholics will vote overwhelmingly against the Catholic Kerry and for the Protestant Bush.
Indeed, a telling difference between Kerry and Bush is how their faith relates to their positions on abortion. Bush believes that a life in the womb is a gift from God that should be protected. Kerry’s position is more complicated. In the final presidential debate on October 13, he said, “My faith affects everything I do, in truth…. And I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people.” He explained that this credo explains “why I fight against poverty,” “why I fight to clean up the environment,” and “why I fight for equality and justice,” all of which he as a legislator transfers in an official way to other people. The only area where Kerry seems to not allow his faith to influence his public life is abortion.
A President John F. Kerry would shape the direction of the court, starting with the US Supreme Court, filling the courts with pro-choice appointments, and rejecting pro-life judges. Kerry would be the most staunchly pro-choice president ever. At the 2003 NARAL Pro-Choice America Dinner, where he described pro-lifers as “the forces of intolerance,” Kerry boasted that his maiden speech as a freshman senator had been in support of Roe v. Wade. On August 2, 1994, on the Senate floor, he stated: “The right thing to do is to treat abortions as exactly what they are a medical procedure that any doctor is free to provide and any pregnant woman free to obtain. Consequently, abortions should not have to be performed in tightly guarded clinics on the edge of town; they should be performed and obtained in the same locations as any other medical procedure…. [A]bortions need to be moved out of the fringes of medicine and into the mainstream of medical practice.”
In April 2004, Kerry took a rare timeout from the presidential campaign to appear on the Senate floor to vote against a bill that would make it a crime to harm a fetus during an assault on the mother. Kerry also joined a Senate minority in voting against a ban on partial-birth abortion.
Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, also a pro-choice Catholic, agrees with her husband that abortion “stop[s] the process of life.” “I ask myself,” she said in an April interview with Newsweek, “if I had a 13-year-old daughter who got drunk one night and got pregnant, what would I do. Christ, I’d go nuts.”
The pro-life constituency that would be most crushed by a Kerry victory is Catholics. No other group has so doggedly led the fight to halt abortion, and a potential Catholic president stands poised to undermine that progress. What Pope John Paul II has described as the Culture of Life could be hindered by no less than a practicing Catholic in the Oval Office.
Both sides, pro-life and pro-choice, know what is at stake today.
Paul Kengor is author of God and George W. Bush. He is also a professor of political science at Grove City College and a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution.