The Democrats' Partial Pro-Lifers

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, April 23, 2007

After the Supreme Court upheld the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said at a news conference: "I would only say that this isn't the only decision that a lot of us wish that [Justice Samuel] Alito weren't there and [former justice Sandra Day] O'Connor were there." Does that mean Reid was repudiating his 2003 Senate vote in favor of the bill? No, he told me Thursday, he was talking about other decisions by Alito.

Reid, an effective legislator and canny politician, reflects a dilemma on abortion among Democrats, currently flying high against dispirited Republicans. Delivering a fetus and then crushing its skull, a procedure called "partial birth" abortion by its critics, is massively unpopular. Its prohibition is favored 61 percent to 28 percent in a Fox News poll from March 2006. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a pro-choice Democrat, called the practice "infanticide." But the abortion rights lobby is adamant against any erosion of Roe v. Wade.

The leading Democratic presidential candidates -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (who voted against the ban in 2003), Sen. Barack Obama, former senator John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- lashed out against Wednesday's ruling. The party's tone was set on the House floor Thursday by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents the "Silk Stocking" district of New York, which includes Manhattan's Upper East Side: "We need to stand up to right-wing, conservative extremist efforts and protect the basic rights of women."

But 17 Democratic senators voted for the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act (it passed 64 to 34). Their ranks included Sen. Patrick Leahy, the current Judiciary Committee chairman, and Sen. Joseph Biden, a former chairman -- both of whom earned a 100 percent voting rating in 2006 from NARAL Pro-Choice America. Biden, who is running for president, and Leahy seldom withhold comment on anything. But they were silent on the court's decision.

Reid, another of the 17 Democrats, was given a 65 percent pro-choice record by NARAL in 2006. He tried to resolve the confusion created by his comments by noting that the Supreme Court's 5 to 4 lineup on partial birth abortion flipped when Alito replaced O'Connor last year (with Reid opposing his confirmation). Reid's statement Wednesday was widely interpreted as backtracking on his 2003 vote. Roll Call said Reid "seemed to think the Supreme Court's decision was unwise."

"Not at all," Reid said when I asked him. Recalling his many votes against partial birth abortion, he indicated he supported the court's decision. "I just don't like what Alito has done on other cases," he said. What other cases? "I can't recall," Reid replied, but he promised aides would let me know.

They did so several hours later. Out of more than 50 decisions that Alito has participated in, Reid disagreed with four. These include Alito dissents, in 5 to 4 opinions, on mandating the federal government to consider global warming and the Hamdan case granting habeas corpus rights to U.S. detainees. Alito concurred in a 5 to 4 decision limiting federal regulation of wetlands and wrote the majority opinion in a 6 to 3 outcome (concurred with by liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) rejecting federal funding of an educational consultant under the disabilities act. But there is no record of Reid criticizing Alito's court opinions before Wednesday.

Thomas Carper, the low-profile junior senator from Delaware, tries to walk the middle of the road on abortion. He was rated at 55 percent pro-choice by NARAL in 2006, but he was one of the 17 Democrats who voted to ban partial birth abortion three years earlier. Carper said after the court upheld the 2003 bill: "I think a number of people who voted for it thought that the court would ultimately strike it down."

Carper's comment points to Democrats who are partial pro-lifers when it comes to partial birth abortion. The presence of Alito in place of O'Connor undermines that posture. The party's presidential candidate will be on record regarding partial birth abortion. How many Democrats will follow suit in 2008?

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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