How John McCain Threatens the Pro-Life Cause

By Douglas Johnson
NRLC Legislative Director

(February 20, 2000) -- The presidential candidacy of Senator John McCain (R-Az.) has posed a significant threat to future advances by the pro-life movement.

Earlier this month, the Board of Directors of the National Right to Life Committee -- made up of an elected delegate from each state NRLC affiliate -- overwhelmingly voted to endorse George W. Bush. That vote recognized Bush’s strong pro-life credentials. It also reflected the recognition among many knowledgeable observers that if elected president, McCain would be unlikely to use the office’s powers to advance the pro-life cause.

In earlier stages of his presidential campaign, McCain made little effort to conceal his disrespect for the pro-life movement. For example, during an appearance on the Don Imus radio show on November 23, McCain referred disparagingly to "otherwise intelligent people who say that that’s the only issue that will determine their vote."

But after his victory in the New Hampshire primary on February 1, McCain began working hard to appeal to pro-life voters in South Carolina and other states.

In response to criticism from NRLC and its affiliates, McCain has relied on two main defenses. First, he declares that his "17-year voting record" in Congress proves that he is "pro-life." Second, he charges that NRLC’s criticisms are motivated entirely by opposition to his so-called "campaign finance reform" proposals" -- a bill that, as McCain characterizes it, would hurt NRLC’s "business." This second defense is basically a diversionary tactic, intended to evade close scrutiny of the inadequacies of McCain’s pro-life positions.

Roe v. Wade

McCain joined the House in 1983, and became a senator in 1987. During his 17 years in Congress, McCain has usually voted anti-abortion -- but for a presidential candidate, that is not the only important data. After all, Al Gore had an 84% pro-life voting record as a member of the House of Representatives (1977-84), but he embraced the entire pro-abortion agenda once he reached the Senate and began to run for president. John McCain is not Al Gore -- but the clearest warnings about what a McCain presidency might entail are found in things that McCain has said and done over the past year, since he started running for President in earnest.

One example is what McCain said when he met with the editorial board of the very liberal San Francisco Chronicle on August 19, 1999:

"I’d love to see a point where it (Roe v. Wade) is irrelevant, and could be repealed because abortion is no longer necessary. 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."

This was no more mere inartful wording. Rather, McCain actually offered a rationale for opposing repeal of Roe -- that it would "force" many women to have dangerous illegal abortions. This, of course, is a very familiar argument -- voiced often by politicians who support the continuation of legal abortion. In short, McCain embraced the "necessary evil" thinking of the pro-abortion movement.

When ABC’s Sam Donaldson recently asked McCain about his statement to the Chronicle, McCain said that he "misspoke." But McCain has yet to explain why he argued as he did to the newspaper’s editors. Did he believe what he said? And if he did, has he changed his mind, and if so, why?

On the January 18 Jane Chastain’s radio show, Cyndi Mosteller, who serves as "National Policy Advisor for Family & Cultural Issues" for the McCain campaign, was asked about McCain’s statement to the Chronicle. Mosteller replied that McCain had "made a mistake" under hard questioning by the newspaper editors. "They ate his lunch," she said, adding, "They were getting on him. And he said [to Mosteller], ‘I was not strong when I needed to be strong.’"

In reality, however, McCain repeated similar arguments in at least three other interviews. At a campaign event, he said, AI would not seek to overturn Roe v. Wade tomorrow, because doing so would endanger the lives of women," World magazine reported on August 21. In a written release dated August 22, McCain said, "If Roe v. Wade were repealed tomorrow, it would force thousands of young women to undergo dangerous and illegal operations." And on Cable News Network on August 22, McCain said, "We all know, and it’s obvious, that if we repeal Roe versus Wade tomorrow, thousands of young American women would be performing illegal and dangerous operations."

McCain also wrote, "I will continue to work with both pro-life and pro-choice Americans so that we can eliminate the need for abortions to be performed in this country." [emphasis added]

These statements tracked the rhetoric of the pro-abortion movement. The pro-life movement does not believe that there is a "need" to kill unborn children, or that restoring legal protection to unborn children will "force" anyone to violate the law.

In more recent utterances, including appearances in South Carolina, McCain has said that he favors the reversal of Roe v. Wade, and that he believes that states ought to make abortion illegal (except to save the life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest). But pro-lifers would be foolish to ignore the evidence of McCain’s real inner thinking provided by his earlier statements. It is noteworthy that during McCain’s 17 years in Congress, he never had an opportunity to vote on Roe v. Wade -- until October 21, 1999, when the Senate voted on a resolution-style amendment by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to endorse Roe v. Wade. McCain skipped the vote to make an extra campaign appearance in New Hampshire, as documented in a local newspaper. The amendment passed narrowly.

Others Agree

NRLC is hardly alone in recognizing that Bush and McCain would handle the abortion issue very differently as president. Bush has been endorsed by the most prominent pro-life leaders in Congress, including Congressman Henry Hyde, Congressman Chris Smith, and Congressman Charles Canady. "I’m convinced of Gov. Bush’s commitment to the pro-life cause," said Hyde, who has criticized McCain for advocating weakening of the Republican Party’s pro-life platform plank.

Pro-abortion leaders also see a big difference. Following McCain’s win in the New Hampshire primary, the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition said that based on exit polls, "pro-choice Republicans overwhelmingly preferred McCain above all the other candidates."

Moreover, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) funded TV ads in New Hampshire attacking Bush for nearly a year before the New Hampshire primary, but never a single ad criticizing McCain.

McCain Winks on Abortion

A revealing observation was made on February 8 by Steven Brill, editor of the magazine Brill's Content, which covers the news media.

Speaking on the Fox News Channel program "The Edge", Brill said two reporters covering the McCain campaign told him, 'You know, he really doesn't feel that strongly about abortion and about -- he isn't really as pro-gun as he lets on in the campaign. He has to do that because it's a Republican primary, but he's kind of let us know that he's not that hard-edged on those subjects.'"

Brill went on, "The point I'm making is that he was given permission, at least by these two guys [journalists], to pander. One of them actually said, '"t least when McCain panders he sort of lets us know he's doing it, and he kind of winks and kind of enjoys it, so he's a good guy.' Well, he's not letting the rest of the country know he's pandering."

In the same vein, liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote on December 15, "McCain’s people whisper, Don’t worry. He’s not really so anti-abortion."

Voting Record

McCain served in the House of Representatives from 1983-86 and in the Senate from 1987 to date. Throughout that period, McCain did not initiate pro-life amendments or otherwise take an activist role, but he did vote pro-life with a few exceptions. The most important exception was on the issue of federal funding of experimentation using body parts of aborted babies.

This question -- usually referred to in the press as the "fetal tissue" issue -- became a matter of major controversy during the Bush Administration. The Bush Administration blocked the use of federal funds for certain experimentation utilizing tissue taken from aborted babies.

In a January 7, 1992 letter to Arizona Right to Life, McCain promised to support President Bush’s ban on federal funding of such abortion-dependent research. "I have no intention of supporting the use of fetal tissue resulting from artificially-induced abortions for research purposes," McCain wrote.

A few months later, however, McCain began voting to overturn Bush’s pro-life policy -- a drive that succeeded after President Clinton took office.

The issue surfaced again in 1997, during consideration of a bill to expand federally sponsored research into Parkinson’s disease, sponsored by McCain and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Mn.). Pro-life Senator Dan Coats (R-In.) offered an amendment to prevent the use of the newly authorized funds for abortion-dependent fetal tissue research, but McCain prevailed in defeating the amendment, 60-38. (Sept. 4, 1997, Senate rollcall Vote No. 215.) Recently, McCain has falsely implied that only four senators disagreed with his position on the issue.

[A detailed memorandum documenting McCain’s statements and votes on the fetal-tissue issue is available at

Warren Rudman

On January 15, McCain said that if elected president, he might appoint former Senator Warren Rudman (R-NH) -- his close advisor and the co-chairman of the national McCain campaign -- as U.S. attorney general. As a senator, Rudman voted to preserve Roe v. Wade, and was an active opponent of other pro-life efforts legislative efforts.

The attorney general is the cabinet officer who most often serves as a president’s key advisor on Supreme Court appointments, and who oversees the positions taken by an administration on issues before the Supreme Court.

Rudman voted to confirm anti-Roe v. Wade Justice Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, but later wrote in his 1996 memoirs, "If my vote had been the deciding one, I would have voted against Thomas, no matter what the consequences."

Rudman has been harshly critical of the pro-life movement and of Christian conservatives. He wrote, "If someone had told me in the 1960s that one day I would serve in a Republican Party that opposed abortion rights -- which the Supreme Court had endorsed -- advocated prayer in the schools, and talked about government-inspired >family values,’ I would have thought he was crazy."

Also, "Politically speaking, the Republican Party is making a terrible mistake if it appears to ally itself with the Christian right" -- a group that he identified as rife with "antiabortion zealots" and "bigots," among other undesirables.

In a February 15 debate in South Carolina, Bush confronted McCain regarding Rudman, noting that Rudman had described the Christian Coalition as "bigots." Bush asked McCain, "I know you don’t believe that, do you?" But McCain refused the invitation to repudiate Rudman’s words, responding instead, "George, he’s entitled to his opinion on that issue."

Moderator Larry King also invited McCain to "disclaim what Rudman said," but McCain did not respond.

Subsequently, Rudman told Manchester Union-Leader reporter John DiStaso that "he most certainly did call the Christian Coalition bigots," and "he included leaders of other conservative groups in the description, to boot." (Union-Leader, Sept. 17)

When, in the February 15 debate, Bush said that "every child, born and unborn, should be protected in law," McCain immediately attacked Bush for his opposition to adding exceptions for rape and incest to the pro-life plank in the Republican platform.

Free Speech About Political Figures

NRLC has certainly made no secret of its strong opposition to certain key components of McCain’s "campaign finance reform" proposals, which would cripple the ability of NRLC and other pro-life groups to communicate with the public about the positions and actions of those who hold or seek federal office.

In some recent communications, McCain has emphasized that the latest version of his bill, introduced last October, did not contain the provisions restricting commentary on politicians by issue-oriented groups such as NRLC. However, at the time McCain made it clear that he was proposing a "stripped-down " bill only for tactical reasons, to try to overcome a filibuster for bill opponents -- not because he’d changed his mind. Indeed, when Senate Democrats forced a vote on the House-passed Shays-Meehan bill -- which contains sweeping restrictions on political free speech by independent groups -- McCain voted for it. (Oct. 19, 1999)

As recently as December 22, McCain told the Associated Press, "If I could think of a way constitutionally, I would ban negative ads."

[Further information on the how McCain’s proposals would cripple pro-life groups, and further empower the institutional news media, is found at the NRLC website,, under "Campaign Finance Reform and Free Speech."]

History of Senator John McCain on federal funding of experimentation using body parts of aborted infants

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