Women Closest to Bush Are Pro-Choice

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 19, 2005 5:45 PM

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Barbara Bush said the Republican Party should drop an anti-abortion plank from its national platform.

"Listen to your mama," declared a radio ad aired at the time by an abortion-rights group. "That's a family value we can all agree on."Now, as President Bush readies to announce his choice for a Supreme Court justice, that ad remains one of the only direct references to a rarely-mentioned fact: The women closest to the president support abortion rights. His mother, his wife and one of his most trusted advisors, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, all have stated that they believe Roe v. Wade should not be overturned.

Bush hears daily from social conservatives who urge him to appoint a justice who firmly opposes abortion. If the women in his inner circle speak their minds on this subject in private, he may hear something different.

How a president makes decisions and who he consults is difficult to know, perhaps even more so in this administration and on such a divisive issue. As Bush considers judicial candidates, the competition for his attention has been cast as a well-funded battle between competing interest groups. What this overlooks is the possibility that Bush, who famously follows his heart and gut and acts decisively, may have some internal conflicts.

Bush frequently touts the influence of the high-level women in his administration. And he often talks about how he respects his wife's opinions, crediting her for moderating his behavior and his rhetoric.

"He appreciates women who are not afraid to talk about the issues," said Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and a supporter of abortion rights who wants her party to reject what she calls "social fundamentalism."

"It's a fallacy that the president only wants to hear from you if you agree," Whitman said, noting Interior Secretary Gale Norton and former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman also support abortion rights. The views of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings are not public. "He is much more inclined and willing to hear dissent and get involved in dissent," Whitman said.

Asked last week while traveling in Africa if she wanted her husband to pick a woman to replace retiring justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Laura Bush said, "Sure." Then she took care not to answer the question that might expose any disagreement between husband and wife, about whether she had concerns that the president's appointment might strike down the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

"I hope that when he makes a pick . . . that that person, whoever it is, gets a fair hearing and that we have a very dignified process in the United States and in the United States Senate as that person gets a hearing," she said. "That's what I think is most important -- besides, of course, picking somebody who will interpret the laws in the Constitution of the United States with a great deal of integrity and intelligence."

Laura Bush hardly has been expansive on the issue of abortion rights. Asked on the eve of the first inauguration whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned, she said, "No." Asked during the 2004 presidential race whether that was still her position, she said, "Yeah." Her terseness notwithstanding, she is a part of an unbroken tradition of Republican first ladies who supported a woman's right to choose, back to Pat Nixon, who said, "I believe abortion is a personal choice."

Rice, who is so close to the Bushes that she has been described as part of the family, said earlier this year that she was "mildly pro-choice." She later explained that she favored some restrictions but would keep abortion legal. "Like many Americans, I find the issue of abortion very difficult," she said on NBC.

Barbara Bush, characteristically, has been the least measured of all. "I hate abortions, but just could not make that choice for someone else," she once said.

Such revelations of moderation may give hope to the 65 percent of Americans who, according to polls, do not want Roe overturned. A generation, including the Bushes' 23-year-old twin daughters, has been born and ordered their lives under the social framework established by Roe.

The Supreme Court vacancy has shaken the complacency of moderate Republicans, said Darlee Crockett, a co-chair of Republicans for Choice, a group with 350,000 members affiliated with Planned Parenthood. "All these pro-choice women surrounding Bush really haven't had an opportunity where they were needed or asked about the policy, and now that's changed," she said. "I think people are going to more emboldened to speak out."

But other strategists on both sides of the abortion fight doubt whether the abortion views of women in Bush's inner circle have any influence on the president.

"Look at the policy that he has supported thus far," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative advocacy group Family Research Council. "The most substantial pro-life legislation since 1973 has passed under his signature -- the ban on partial-birth abortion, the unborn victims of violence act, and I hope, the fetal pain act."

Nancy Keenan, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, agreed. "I think he may surround himself with allegedly pro-choice women, but he doesn't listen to them," she said, citing abortion restrictions as well as full funding for abstinence-only education and blocked distribution for the morning-after pill. "That is part of [Republicans'] stealth campaign, to say that you support moderation when at the same time you are passing very extreme measures that really take away women's freedom and their own personal decision-making."

These assessments ignore the possibility that the women around Bush already have shaped his views.

Bush prefers to address the issue of abortion in thematic language, speaking of "a culture of life" or "changing hearts." In an interview with Danish television a few days after O'Connor's resignation, he said abortion remained "a genuine philosophical debate, a debate amongst good people -- good, decent, honorable, patriotic Americans who have a difference of opinion."

He said he had "always believed" that abortion "ought to be illegal with the exception of rape, incest, or life of the mother." Then he added, "But look, I'm a realist as well."

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