Sen. John F. Kerry is getting pulled, sometimes reluctantly, into the national debate over abortion as result of recent court action, church politics and some pressure from Democrats outside of his campaign.
The Massachusetts Democrat, who throughout his 30-plus years in public life has tried to balance his personal opposition to abortion with public support for a woman's right to have one, rarely talks about the issue on the campaign trail -- unless he is forced to. Kerry's reluctance to discuss abortion is as much personal as political, reflecting the Democratic presidential candidate's uneasiness in talking about religious views and divisive church issues, aides say.
But recent events, including Tuesday's court ruling that the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act is unconstitutional, are forcing Kerry to deal with an issue that some Democrats fear could complicate his efforts to win over independents and disgruntled Republicans and could detract attention from his focus on economic and national security issues.
It started several weeks ago, when a few Roman Catholic leaders began warning that Kerry -- and other politicians who support abortion rights -- should not be allowed to receive Holy Communion because the Catholic Church considers abortion murder. A task force of U.S. bishops is considering whether the church should take action against Catholic politicians who advocate positions contrary to Catholic teaching.
Kerry has become a central focus of this debate among Catholics. USA Today, for instance, published an opinion article yesterday by James P. Gannon, former editor of the Des Moines Register, in which he says he is "embarrassed" by Kerry's willingness to toss "overboard those parts of Catholic doctrine that are politically inconvenient."
Kerry, who has continued to take Communion, has played down the controversy and has refused to discuss his private meetings with church leaders. Many Democrats contend it is wrong to focus on Kerry's or any politician's record on abortion.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) yesterday released the results of a study that examined nearly two dozen votes and bills to determine which senators supported Catholic teaching most consistently. Kerry's record was the most pro-Catholic. Durbin and his staff denied that they cherry-picked issues to make Kerry come out on top. They said they spent three weeks combing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual legislative report and looked at every bill on which the bishops took a clear stand, from abortion and war to raising the minimum wage.
Last month, Kerry created a stir when he appeared to soften his support for an abortion litmus test for Supreme Court nominees. "I will not appoint somebody with a 5-4 court who's about to undo Roe v. Wade. I've said that before," Kerry told the Associated Press. "But that doesn't mean that if that's not the balance of the court, I wouldn't be prepared ultimately to appoint somebody to some court who has a different point of view. I've already voted for people like that. I voted for Judge [Antonin] Scalia."
Even some of Kerry's aides were taken aback by the comment. A few hours later, after some Democrats voiced concerns, the campaign issued a statement clarifying his unequivocal support for a litmus test for the high court. Kerry, however, left the door open to nominating as lower-court judges people who do not share his views on abortion, and that has created confusion among Democrats.
But Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said: "It has not come to my attention he would appoint anti-choice" judges to any court. A top Kerry adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it is "high unlikely" a Kerry administration would appoint an abortion opponent to any bench.
The abortion issue that has Democrats the most concerned -- a ban on the procedure critics call partial-birth abortion -- is resurfacing after a federal judge in San Francisco ruled on Tuesday that the ban is unconstitutional.
Kerry voted against the ban, which Bush signed into law, because he said it does not provide adequate protections for a woman's health. Several Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), backed Bush on the ban -- support that Republicans are using to paint Kerry as outside of the mainstream.
"Americans from across the political spectrum oppose partial birth abortion because they support a culture of life, but John Kerry returned to the Senate last year to oppose the partial birth abortion ban," Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign, said in a statement after the ruling.
"John Kerry voted to restrict late-term abortions but only where there was a clear exception for life or health of women," Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said in a statement Tuesday. "When John Kerry is president, he will appoint judges that are committed to upholding the Constitution, not pursuing an ideological agenda."
Two Kerry advisers said he does not fear the politics of abortion, noting that he spoke forcefully in support of abortion rights at an April rally. Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist, said the "conventional wisdom" that abortion hurts Kerry with swing voters is wrong. She said a majority of independents are women who favor abortion rights and men who are uncomfortable with the politicization of social issues. "In many ways, this debate hurts Bush," Backus said, because it makes the president appear "beholden to the right wing."
Yet with the election likely to be decided in culturally conservative states in the South and the Midwest, and the Democratic candidate focusing on winning over independent and disgruntled GOP voters on economic and international issues, abortion is an issue Kerry would rather avoid, according to Democrats inside and outside of his campaign. The Kerry advisers said he is similarly reluctant to discuss gay marriage, which has often eclipsed abortion as the top social issue of the 2004 campaign.
Kerry has professed his personal opposition to abortion since his unsuccessful 1972 campaign for Congress. "On abortion, I myself, by belief and upbringing, am opposed to abortion but as a legislator, as one who is called on to pass a law, I would find it very difficult to legislate on something God himself has not seen fit to make clear to all the people on this earth. . . . And I think, therefore, with a sense of justice in mind that one has to leave the question of abortion between a woman and her conscience and her doctor," he told the Sun, a Lowell, Mass., newspaper, in 1972.
But Kerry apparently has never said whether he agrees with the Catholic Church that abortion is a sin and akin to murder. "John Kerry's personal feelings about church doctrine are a private matter. He's made it clear that he's committed to upholding a woman's right to privacy, and that he wants an America where abortion is safe, legal and rare," said David Wade, a Kerry spokesman.
Staff writer Alan Cooperman contributed to this report.