For a presidential candidate who says he strongly opposes abortion, George W. Bush's reaction was surprisingly mild when he was asked at the first debate in Boston whether, as president, he would try to overturn the Food and Drug Administration approval of RU-486. "I don't think a president can do that," Bush responded.

He then spoke in general terms about his desire to bring about a "culture of life" in which abortion is "more rare" and assisted suicide and late-term abortion are not permitted. Returning to the issue of RU-486, the recently approved pill that makes possible chemical rather than surgical abortions, Bush concluded, "As to the drug itself: I mentioned I was disappointed. I hope the FDA took its time to make sure that American women will be safe who use this drug."

That's it from a strong opponent of abortion? Bush's statements were mild enough that they might have come from a centrist Roe supporter--many Roe proponents oppose late-term abortion and wish abortion itself were "more rare." Yet the Bush comments have not drawn fire from most pro-life lobbies. The day after the debate, the National Right to Life Committee--whose website is heavy with anti-RU-486 commentary--had issued no statements critical of the Republican candidate; spokesperson Laura Echevarria told Beliefnet, "We were pleased with what Governor Bush said last night."

Contrast this with the Right to Life Committee's regular denouncements of John McCain, during the Republican primaries, when McCain made any anti-abortion comment that was less absolute. McCain favored campaign finance reform, which threatens the income of some pro-life groups; Bush does not, and so mild statements from him may be more tolerable to them.

Mifepristone, or RU-486, raises many complex ethical questions, and for some may represent a moral improvement over the current regime, since the drug only works in the first six weeks or so of pregnancy, when the fetus is in early development and complex brain waves and other indicators of life have not yet begun. But for anyone who believes that life begins at conception--a view Bush has endorsed in the past--there is no moral distinction between RU-486 and surgical abortion.

Thus, one might expect that Bush would have described himself as harshly opposed to RU-486. Instead, his mild comments fall into line with the mixed stance that Republican presidents and presidential candidates have taken for the past two decades on abortion. Ronald Reagan repeatedly declared his emphatic opposition to Roe, and while in office even signed his name to an anti-abortion book, "The Conscience of a Nation." But Reagan never took any substantive action to overturn Roe and never addressed the annual pro-life marches on Washington during his two terms. George Bush, as president, said he opposed abortion but otherwise downplayed the issue; Bob Dole, the Republican candidate of 1996, said he opposed abortion but also that, because Roe rights had become law, no one should expect the situation to change soon.

This straddling viewpoint--abortion is wrong, but don't expect much change--seems to be the Republican Party's thinking on how to appeal to the pro-life constituency without alienating moderates, especially the large bloc of suburban women who are uneasy supporters of Roe. Consider that when asked if he would work to overturn FDA approval of RU-486, Bush replied, "I don't think a president can do that." Strictly speaking, that's true--a president cannot issue orders to the agency about what it legalizes. But Bush as president could propose legislation to block usage of a drug, and he avoided saying he would do so.

Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist pro-life advocate, said, "Most pro-lifers I have talked to today thought Bush's statement about RU-486 was technically correct, but it was weak and we wish he had made clear that, as president, he would use the bully pulpit to oppose this drug and would sign any legislation to outlaw it."

In the debates, Bush further said he would impose no abortion-based "litmus test" on potential Supreme Court nominees, saying that his first criteria was competence, noting that his choices for Texas state courts were moderates. Bush did say, "I believe that judges ought not to take the place of the legislative branch of government" and should not make social policy: many legal analysts, including some liberals, think the Roe decision was a case of the Supreme Court usurping the function of the legislature. But again, on Supreme Court appointments, Bush dodged the chance to say anything pointed about the life-choice controversy, seeming to try to signal the pro-life movement that he was still on their side without jeopardizing his chances with suburban moderates.

Al Gore, by contrast, was aggressively pro-choice. Of the FDA action on RU-486, he said, "I support that decision." Gore continued: "The main issue is whether or not the Roe v. Wade decision will be overturned. I support a woman's right to choose. My opponent does not." Gore accused Bush of using "code words" about Supreme Court nominees, to let supporters know he would pick pro-life justices but not to say this in so many words. (Gore's "code words" evidence was that Bush has said he admires current justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who are mainly pro-life; but claiming this as proof that Bush would only make pro-life appointments requires a considerable stretch of mind-reading.) Regarding the Supreme Court, Gore was unequivocal: "I would appoint people that have a philosophy that would uphold Roe vs. Wade."

Gore's political calculation may be that there is no chance any firm pro-life voter will back him, so he might as well shore up the pro-choice constituency. Polls show Gore with a substantial edge among female voters, in part because so many women, even women who are uneasy about abortion, fear a Supreme Court takeover by ideologues who oppose women's rights. Thus Gore may benefit from stating his support of Roe in direct language, while Bush is better served politically by being vague regarding his opposition.

Overlooked in the exchanges on RU-486 and the Supreme Court was this comment from Gore: "On the issue of partial birth or so-called late-term abortion I would sign a law banning that procedure provided that doctors have the ability to save a woman's life or to act in her health is severely at risk." The phrasing was a stumble in the ideological wars: The pro-choice lobbies that back Gore strongly prefer "late-term abortion" as the description and say "so-called partial birth," not the other way around. But Gore's statement is the furthest he has yet gone in indicating he might compromise on late-term abortion, which is morally extremely objectionable.

Several bills that would ban late-term abortion, except to save the mother's life, have almost moved through Congress in recent years, only to be scuttled by a mixture of left-right purists who oppose any form of compromise. But Gore's backing might help an anti-late-term measure succeed. Gore's suggestion that an anti-late-term restriction--which would be legal under Roe, which only ensures abortion rights in the first two trimesters--should include an exemption for a woman whose "health is severely at risk" ensures further controversy, since the American Medical Association, which favors Roe but opposes most third-trimester abortion, has said there are "no circumstances" in which late-term abortion is the only way to prevent severe health harm to the mother. (The AMA supports late-term abortion only in cases in which the fetus has defects "incompatible with life," usually meaning a baby without a brain stem who is fated to die shortly after birth no matter what is done.)

Often what is most significant in a news story is what people don't say, and on abortion and the candidates, the didn't-say quotient from the debate is being missed. Bush didn't say he is totally opposed to RU-486; pro-life lobbies didn't say they are mad about what Bush didn't say; and Gore didn't say he is determined to support late-term abortion. In what wasn't said, at least, the debate veered away from the expected.

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