Susan B. Anthony List (SBA), a stalwart in the pro-life movement, has told Right Turn exclusively that it had a revised interpretation of its anti-abortion pledge, which all the GOP’s presidential candidates except Herman Cain and Mitt Romney signed. Moreover, multiple conversations with the affected parties suggest that SBA was only too anxious to use this incident to criticize Romney, despite confusion as to what the pledge meant.

The pledge read:

* Only nominate to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal bench judges who are committed to restraint and applying the original meaning of the Constitution, not legislating from the bench;

* Select pro-life appointees for relevant Cabinet and Executive Branch positions, in particular the head of National Institutes of Health, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health & Human Services;

* Advance pro-life legislation to permanently end all taxpayer funding of abortion in all domestic and international spending programs, and defund Planned Parenthood and all other contractors and recipients of federal funds with affiliates that perform or fund abortions;and

* Advance and sign into law a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion.

The pledge raised two issues: Did the candidates intend to ban all providers and affiliates? To exclude individuals such as Tom Ridge and Rudy Giuliani, not to mention every U.S. attorney (who also work within the executive branch) who was not pro-life?

The ultraconservative Web site Red State deemed the pledge “ridiculous” and quoted Cain as objecting on the grounds of separation of powers: “Cain has said that he opposes abortion and that he supports cutting funds for Planned Parenthood.In a statement issued Saturday, Cain said his respect for the separation of powers prevented him from signing. ‘[T]he fourth requirement demands that I ‘advance’ the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. As president, I would sign it, but Congress must advance the legislation,’ the statement said, adding that Cain remains ‘a consistent and unwavering champion of pro-life issues.’ ”

A pro-life conservative lawyer told me that the provider language was suspect: “So should the entire University of California system be defunded if one of its medical schools teaches abortion to about [three?] medical students willing to learn the procedure each year? The proponents of the pledge might say ‘yes,’ and I might not shed a tear for wholly independent reasons, but the politicians being asked to make the pledge would not likely understand that they are taking on the well-endowed wrath of the major universities in their states. Even if the pledge does not really apply in this way, I’ve seen universities go to war over less realistic threats to their federal funding stream.”

Romney put out his own pledge, explaining his objections to the SBA language:

I am pro-life and believe that abortion should be limited to only instances of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. I support the reversal of Roe v. Wade, because it is bad law and bad medicine. Roe was a misguided ruling that was a result of a small group of activist federal judges legislating from the bench. I support the Hyde Amendment, which broadly bars the use of federal funds for abortions. And as president, I will support efforts to prohibit federal funding for any organization like Planned Parenthood, which primarily performs abortions or offers abortion-related services. I will reinstate the Mexico City Policy to ensure that nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from America refrain from performing or promoting abortion services, as a method of family planning, in other countries. This includes ending American funding for any United Nations or other foreign assistance program that promotes or performs abortions on women around the world. I will advocate for and support a Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion. And perhaps most importantly, I will only appoint judges who adhere to the Constitution and the laws as they are written, not as they want them to be written. As much as I share the goals of the Susan B. Anthony List, its well-meaning pledge is overly broad and would have unintended consequences. That is why I could not sign it. It is one thing to end federal funding for an organization like Planned Parenthood; it is entirely another to end all federal funding for thousands of hospitals across America. That is precisely what the pledge would demand and require of a president who signed it. The pledge also unduly burdens a president’s ability to appoint the most qualified individuals to a broad array of key positions in the federal government. I would expect every one of my appointees to carry out my policies on abortion and every other issue, irrespective of their personal views. If I have the opportunity to serve as our nation’s next president, I commit to doing everything in my power to cultivate, promote, and support a culture of life in America.

I spoke to an adviser close to Tim Pawlenty’s campaign, who said that campaign officials honestly did not think the impact of the “providers” language would be that broad, although they did undertake a thoughtful analysis. As to the issue of cabinet-level appointees, the adviser confirmed that Pawlenty would not appoint a pro-choice individual, but said that this had been the de facto pro-life position since a flap in the Bush 41 administration.

SBA pounced, issuing a statement condemning only Romney. It read in part, “Our next president must recognize the urgency of addressing over a million abortions per year. That’s why our pledge calls for active leadership, not just checking the box. Five candidates took the pledge, and the pro-life grass roots know where they stand. Governor Romney refused to take the pledge, and his explanation raises more questions than answers. In good conscience, we cannot let this rest.”

I asked repeatedly during expansive back-and-forth e-mail exchanges on Saturday why Cain was excluded. After multiple inquiries in which other information was provided but my query about Cain was not addressed, a SBA spokesman e-mailed, “Cain disagrees on advancing a federal fetal pain bill.” That seemed to be fine with the group.

But it turns out that not all candidates were treated fairly. When I asked about these two issues, Rick Santorum’s spokesman said that his campaign got an “interpretation” from SBA that the funding language applied to only abortion providers, not other entities or affiliated entities. Was this in writing? No. Whom did the candidate talk to? No answer.

I asked SBA why it gave a different explanation of its pledge to only one campaign. A spokesman said, “ Campaigns who had questions got clarification.” But if the pledge was not interpreted the same for all candidates, would the group reissue it? Not exactly. An SBA spokesman said that with its clarification “Romney et al. can sign without fear.” But SBA is going to unleash its grass roots.( “Our grass roots will be encouraging them to sign.”) However, since SBA is not going to redo the statement, candidates would be expected to sign a pledge with language that doesn’t mean what it says. And did the group mean to include every executive branch appointment must be filled by a pro-life person or just Cabinet officials? Ya got me.

SBA unfortunately has made hash of this entire episode, but in the long run it may be a valuable lesson for the candidates.

Ironically, this, if anything, makes both Pawlenty and Romney look pretty good. Romney and Pawlenty played by the same rules (both interpreted the provider language as written) but in good faith answered differently. However, of the three Pawlenty gave the broadest answer, since he was actually saying that he would exclude funding to all providers and their affiliates.

It’s very possible some will see this as a thinly disguised anti-Romney ploy that went awry.Only he was condemned by SBA, and his most virulent pro-life critic got help no one else did. (Santorum, who previously endorsed pro-choice Tom Ridge for secretary of homeland security, would have violated his own pledge.) There was no communication by SBA with the Romney campaign to provide the same clarification that Santorum received.

The lesson of this may be to avoid pledges. They tend to be nothing but trouble, both in the primary and general election. They aren’t drafted, as we certainly saw in this case, with legislative precision. It is never quite clear if the point is really to “get” one candidate, and we have no way of knowing whether pledge crafters are communicating with only certain campaigns. The pledges have consequences the drafters never imagined. (Again, we saw that here.) Moreover, they detract from the central premise of a campaign: to select a candidate whose views and judgment voters trust. There’s no pledge for that. Making candidates hop each time a special-interest group squawks hardly makes the contenders seem presidential.

The Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.The Romney campaign declined to comment, other than to point me to his publicly released statement.