Why is John McCain, a presidential candidate with a largely anti-abortion voting record in the Senate, on the National Right to Life Committee's hit list?

The NRLC's barrage of anti-McCain mailings and radio attack ads in conjunction with the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries has been so ferocious that numerous pundits, including Beliefnet's Gregg Easterbrook, have accused the NRLC of being just one more vicious, power-hungry Washington lobby.

The right-to-life movement clearly was a major factor in Republican rival George W. Bush's resounding defeat of McCain in the South Carolina primary. The NRLC's Michigan chapter also went all out against McCain in the Republican primary in that state--although this time McCain managed to surmount the barrage of negative mailings and win.

I'll be the first to admit that the NRLC can be hard to take. Its officials don't cater to reporters, and they're not warm and cuddly: I don't think they'd be much fun at a cocktail party. They have only one thing going for them: a righteous cause. The NRLC doesn't care about popularity, and it's not afraid of offending people. The only thing that possibly makes it quake in its boots is the prospect of a President John McCain, and that's because they realize that a McCain presidency might achieve the unthinkable: making them miss the Clintons.

At first, when I heard about the NRLC war on McCain, I was ambivalent. I was hesitant to attack a right-to-life group because they get attacked all the time and because, frankly, they put me to shame. I'm against abortion, but I am often slightly embarrassed by this. I hate to speak up in polite society. The NRLC has no such qualms. I figured that, once again, a right-to-life group had blundered into something that was just going to make them media red meat. But that's before I realized that a McCain presidency is one of the biggest challenges the right to life cause has faced since Roe v. Wade.

McCain's increasing equivocations on abortion make him appear to be the worst possible presidential choice from a right-to-life perspective--a pro-choice Republican wearing a right-to-life badge. When Republican rival and gadfly Alan Keyes tried to pin down McCain on the particulars of his proposed abortion exceptions, during the recent South Carolina debate, McCain dodged the questions with his shop-worn line that he'd "seen too much killing in my life" as a POW in Vietnam to be lectured on abortion by the callow Keyes.

They also know that McCain's campaign finance reform proposals--including proposed limitations on advocacy groups' ability to target candidates' voting records immediately before an election-could have a devastating effect on the way the NRLC operates. McCain's proposals would reduce the NRLC's political clout--which is why cynics have accused it of being more interested in power than saving babies.

However, I believe the NRLC is completely justified in maintaining its position that a vote for campaign finance reform is a pro-choice vote--and also for going fiercely negative on McCain. They know that any version of campaign finance reform that eventually passes is unlikely to help them.

Besides supporting crippling restrictions on the NRLC's anti-abortion advocacy, the Republican candidate has been sending signals recently that he would not do anything to help overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's 1973 decision establishing broad abortion rights. He has also said that he is considering making his campaign chairman, Warren Rudman--outspokenly pro-choice and contemptuous of the Christian Right--his attorney general. Finally, unlike George W. Bush, McCain has stated publicly that he would like to alter the Republican platform plank on abortion to allow the procedure in instances of rape and incest. (Bush also supports those exceptions but says he does not want to tinker with the platform.)

What most rankles the NRLC, however, is McCain's position on campaign finance reform, which might end up rendering the NRLC impotent in doing what it does best: targeting pro-choice candidates for defeat.

The NRLC isn't mincing words in its war on the Arizona senator. "If this is South Carolina, I must be pro-life," says a McCain impersonator in an NRLC radio spot that mockingly implies McCain's anti-abortion stance is pure opportunism.

Another radio ad attacks Rudman: "He wrote that the Christian conservative movement includes, quote, 'anti-abortion zealots,' says a chipper female voice that continues: "I don't want someone like that helping choose Supreme Court judges! I'm pro-life!"

Of course, part of the NRLC's opposition to campaign finance reform undoubtedly stems from an unseemly desire to conceal its sources of financing. Even some in the right-to-life movement criticize the NRLC, which has a $12 lobbying million budget, for throwing its weight around and trying to dominate the entire movement. It has also been accused of having a siege mentality and of being too close to the Republican Party. (The Republican National Committee gave the NRLC $650,000 in 1996 to help defeat pro-choice Democrats.)

What first set the NRLC off was a provision in the original version of McCain's Senate bill that would have prohibited advocacy groups from broadcasting ads that use a candidate's name or likeness during the 60 days immediately before a federal election.

"This would have made it difficult to embarrass a supporter of partial-birth abortion at the optimum time-right before an election," says anti-abortion journalist Mary Meehan.

Moreover, this particular plank in McCain's "reform" would have helped incumbents avoid scrutiny. When the McCain bill was first debated on Capitol Hill, Meehan recalls, quite a few legislators were unable to contain their glee. Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-PA, went so far as to say the campaign ads "need to be managed, as free speech does throughout our society."

The 60-day ban was eventually pulled from the bill. Even so, the NRLC seems to fear that the provision could be restored. A recent NRLC-sponsored ad in New Hampshire featured a woman who criticizes McCain by name and is promptly slapped into handcuffs.

Besides fearing that McCain would have a devastating impact on NRLC lobbying, the right-to-life movement fears that McCain as the most dangerous kind of right-to-lifer: the wink, wink kind. Although McCain describes himself as pro-life, and has a largely anti-abortion voting record in the Senate, there are indications that he has changed his tune since he decided to run for president.

Besides stating publicly that he would modify the Republican party's strong anti-abortion stance, he is said to have "kind of let us [reporters] know that he's that he's not that hard-edged" on abortion, according to Brill's Content founder Steven Brill in a television interview.

A Republican president who says he's pro-life but in point of fact has much in common with pro-choicers in both parties would be more difficult to attack and thus make life much more difficult for the NRLC than the avowedly and actively pro-choice Clintons. In fact, President and Mrs. Clinton's very stridency may actually have helped the anti-abortion movement. The more subtle McCain prefers to speak about "abortion gridlock" and his plans to bring the two sides together on common-ground issues like adoption.

"This is code for "I want to preserve the status quo'," says NRLC legislative director Doug Johnson. He adds: "We're for adoption. Sure. But what's the other side going to do to help us ban abortion?"

Good question.

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