“I’ve defended my pro-life position for my whole political career. But in my whole political career, I’ve also believed in rape, incest, and the life of the mother as exceptions. That’s exactly what Republicans have voted on in this House, that’s what our platform says."
--House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), in remarks to reporters, May 16, 2019
McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, said Alabama’s new law imposing a near-total ban on abortions “goes further than I believe” because it did not include exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. What caught our eye is that he said he had a “pro-life position” his entire political career. Is that really the case?
(Note: We had also planned to fact check his statement that these exceptions were in “our platform.” The 2016 Republican Party platform actually does not have those exceptions listed, instead calling for a Human Life amendment to the constitution. But McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks said he was referring House Republican efforts to codify the Hyde Amendment – which curbs federal funding of abortion while keeping those exceptions – such as in a 2010 document known as the Pledge to America. “When speaking extemporaneously to reporters at a press conference this is what McCarthy considered as the conference’s ‘platform,’” he said. “Forgive the confusion.”)
There is little doubt that McCarthy has opposed abortion rights since he arrived in Congress. The question is whether it extends to his period before he arrived in Congress. News reports (some of which are not on line) pegged him as a moderate on the issue, even a supporter of abortion rights. He certainly was viewed with suspicion by some Republicans.
One of the earliest press mentions of McCarthy was when he attended the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego as the 30-year-old chairman of the California Young Republicans. He told a reporter for the Orange County Register that the GOP needed to emphasize taxes and college costs to attract young voters, not social issues.
“The draw to the party is over economic issues,” McCarthy said. “Abortion ... this is something you should talk to your minister, rabbi and your family [about].”
As an aide to then-Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), McCarthy was closely involved in internal state party battles that pitted moderates against social conservative factions, working on behalf of the moderate faction.
“For nearly two decades, Thomas was often engaged in guerrilla warfare against the conservatives who controlled the state party leadership,” reported the California Journal in November, 2003. “At state GOP conventions, fliers slipped under delegates’ hotel room doors with harsh condemnation of Thomas have long been regular features. McCarthy was a Thomas lieutenant in those battles.” Conservatives in 1993 even formed a splinter group of the young Republicans because they chafed at McCarthy’s leadership.
“The Thomas-McCarthy wars with the state party-leadership apparently peaked in 2001,” the article said. “That's when they backed the unsuccessful drive by Bob Larkin and other moderates to install moderate former Assemblyman Brooks Firestone as head of the state GOP organization. They argued that GOP defeats at the ballot box in recent years were partly due to defections of women and moderates turned off by the party's hard-line stance against abortion and gun control.”
In another sign of how McCarthy was viewed by some within the party, the Bakersfield California newspaper on June 1, 2003 published a scathing letter to the editor: “McCarthy has spent the better part of two decades attacking conservatives, working hard to remove the pro-life position from the Republican Party’s platform and otherwise undermining God-fearing people in politics.”
The newspaper that year also published a lengthy article about McCarthy’s tensions with conservatives after he was elected leader of the Republicans in the state assembly.
“Conservatives were furious when McCarthy began positioning himself to run on a conservative platform in his race for his Assembly post last year against conservative Bakersfield Councilman Mike Maggard. McCarthy described himself as being anti-abortion in his answers on questionnaires from local and state Right to Life groups. He said he was against abortion except in cases of incest or rape or to save the life of the mother. He also said he would vote to retain the strong anti-abortion language in the state party platform.”
The article noted that the “latter answer was especially galling to conservatives” because of his backing of Firestone, who had campaigned on a platform that called for easing the party’s hard-line stance against abortion and gun control. Instead, his answers on the questionnaire mirrored those of a long-time conservative – who he then defeated.
In the article, McCarthy insisted he had always been anti-abortion but he was tolerant of other viewpoints. "I do not base my endorsements of people on abortion as a litmus test of whether you're a Republican or not," he said. "Apparently, they do."
Most famously, McCarthy was pegged as a supporter of abortion rights in a 2003 profile by George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times: “McCarthy leans to the middle. He supports most abortion rights, but opposes spending tax dollars on abortions.”
Skelton, the dean of California political journalists, said his notes are buried in his garage but he remembers the interview. “I wrote what I did based on what I was hearing from him when questioning him on the subject, and his body language. There wasn’t any grabber quote or I would have used it,” he told The Fact Checker. “I recall him talking like a guy who, A, was not really concerned about the issue and, B, deep down believed abortion was a woman’s decision.”
Skelton noted that McCarthy never disputed what he wrote, “at least to me, or anyone else that I heard.“
Still, once McCarthy became leader of the Assembly Republicans and then was elected to Congress, he amassed a consistent record of opposition to abortion rights, with the exception of cases involving rape, incest and life of the mother.
“Mr. McCarthy is proud of his record protecting life. His position has been stated in every candidate questionnaire since he ran for elected office in the early 2000’s and he has maintained a 100 percent rating with Right to Life since serving in Congress,” Sparks said. “In the California Assembly, he had a 91 percent score with Life Priority Network and his voting record in the Assembly represents his position in support of life. Additionally, Mr. McCarthy recalls speaking with Mr. Skelton after the piece.”
The Pinocchio Test
McCarthy framed this as a position he’s taken his “whole political career.” It’s a judgement call as to whether a political career should extend beyond his position as an elected official, casting votes, or when he was involved in battles with social conservatives as head of the young Republicans and an aide to Thomas.
Those disputes were in some ways tactical questions about how to position the party in a liberal state. McCarthy early on did not appear to be a pro-life warrior and may not have objected when he was depicted as a moderate. But since his emergence as a Republican leader, his record is fairly consistent. So we will leave this unrated.
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