Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) appeared to soften his position on making abortion illegal in separate interviews in recent days, drawing criticism from social conservatives and some of his opponents for the Republican presidential nomination.
Aides to McCain said perhaps he could have been clearer in comments he made to the San Francisco Chronicle and CNN, but that he had not wavered from his long-term opposition to abortion or his belief that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, should be repealed.
"I'd love to see a point where it is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary," McCain told the Chronicle in an article published Friday. "But certainly in the short term, or even the long term, 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."
On Sunday, on CNN's "Late Edition," McCain reiterated that he would not have an abortion "litmus" test for a running mate or Supreme Court nominees. He added that while he ultimately favors repeal of Roe, "we all know, and it's obvious, that if we repeal Roe v. Wade tomorrow, thousands of young American women would be performing illegal and dangerous operations."
McCain has a long antiabortion record in his 17-year congressional career. He has said he opposes abortion with the exceptions of rape, incest and to prevent a woman's death. In a National Right to Life Committee questionnaire last year, he answered "yes" when asked if he supported the complete reversal of Roe v. Wade. He also voted to override President Clinton's veto of the ban on a late-term procedure called "partial birth" abortion by its opponents and in favor of continuing the ban on Medicaid funding for abortions, with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the woman.
His latest remarks took some conservatives by surprise. They said it appeared to contradict his record, what he told the National Right to Life Committee and a letter to Roman Catholic bishops last year in which he said he was a "life-long, ardent supporter of unborn children's right to life."
McCain and GOP rivals Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole--though they oppose abortion--have sought to deemphasize the issue in their campaigns for the nomination, saying it has divided the GOP and allowed Democrats to engage in demagoguery to their advantage.
So far there has been little backlash among conservatives, who are eager to capture the White House and generally appear willing to accept a more incremental approach on abortion. But some said McCain's comments went too far.
"Those lines seem to blur the distinction between him and Al Gore," said Randy Tate of the Christian Coalition.
Gail Quinn, executive director of the Secretariat for Pro-life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said McCain seemed to be adopting a mushy position to retain conservative support while simultaneously appealing to moderates. "To kind of walk a fence and not put your foot on either side of it, is not good," she said.
Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said the statements were "really a drastic flip-flop from those earlier pronouncements of his unsurpassed commitment to restore legal protection of unborn children."
Presidential candidate Gary Bauer, former head of the conservative advocacy group Family Research Council, called McCain's statements "unintelligible." And Greg Mueller, a spokesman for Steve Forbes, lumped McCain with Dole and Bush, saying McCain's statements "were the latest evidence that [they] have squishy opinions on abortion."
When asked if McCain misspoke in the Chronicle and CNN interviews, aides yesterday said no. They said he was trying to explain that efforts to repeal Roe v. Wade would have to come in conjunction with efforts to reduce abortion through other means, including adoptions and counseling.
McCain released a statement on Sunday saying that he has always opposed Roe v. Wade and "as president, I would work toward its repeal."
Cyndi Mosteller, a South Carolina antiabortion activist who serves as McCain's national consultant on family and cultural issues, defended him. "I think the comments are somewhat confusing, and I think Senator McCain regrets them also," she said. "I assess John McCain based on his 13 years taking votes in the Senate. I know that John McCain is antiabortion. I know that he is in favor of the reversal of Roe v. Wade."
Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said she thinks McCain was trying to obfuscate his position to abortion rights supporters and independent female voters. "If this statement means he is moving in a thoughtful way toward a pro-choice policy and values position, that's terrific," she said. "But my guess is, this is more of a political posturing."
CAPTION: Sen. John McCain said repealing the ruling, in the short "or even the long term," would lead to thousands of illegal, dangerous abortions.