Bill Clinton: Bush II

By Fred Barnes

President Clinton has something in common with President Bush besides support for the North American Free Trade Agreement. He has an aversion to the abortion issue, too. Their positions are different, Clinton being pro-choice, Bush pro-life. But Clinton's way of coping with his discomfort is just like Bush's: he doesn't talk about abortion unless he absolutely has to. In marathon conversations with counselor David Gergen, the president has never broached the issue (Gergen hasn't either). This is odd, because a month before joining the White House staff last May, Gergen had written that Clinton's policies would open "the floodgates to universal abortion on demand, funded by taxpayers," and "ride roughshod over the sensibilities of most Americans." And Clinton was a regular reader of Gergen's columns in U.S. News and World Report. In fact, until just before his September 22 speech to Congress on health care, Clinton hadn't held a prolonged discussion on abortion for months.

Clinton is about as eager to step forward and lead the pro-choice fight as he is to invite Rush Limbaugh to the White House. He didn't lobby the House of Representatives last July when it took up the Hyde Amendment banning government-financed abortions. He made no effort to broker the dispute that derailed the Freedom of Choice Act over the summer. Why not? He wasn't asked to, explains Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos. And he certainly didn't offer. Nor is Clinton insistent that abortion be kept a guaranteed benefit in his health plan. It's in his proposal announced on September 22, but whether it stays or not is "negotiable," says a senior White House official. He also has declined to impose a pro-choice litmus test on nominees for federal district court judgeships.

The resilience of abortion opponents has surprised Clinton. He and his aides had thought the pro-life movement was dead, until they were shocked when the Hyde Amendment passed the House by eighty-five votes. In August, he anticipated a no-friction meeting with Pope John Paul II after he flew to Denver to welcome the Pontiff. "The expectation was he [the Pope] would not say anything that was confrontational or embarrassing to the president," says Gergen. The Pope didn't fully comply. Following their forty-five minute meeting, he proclaimed his opposition to Clinton's pro-choice policy. He cited "the inalienable dignity of every human being and the rights which flow from that dignity--including the right to life and the defense of life." The Pope also repeated part of a speech he'd delivered in 1987 in Detroit: "If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then America, defend life."

Part of Clinton's problem is that he has two positions on abortion, and they don't always mesh. Before a straw poll at a Democratic gathering in Florida in 1991, Clinton adopted a moderate position (he won the poll). Abortion, he said, should be "safe, legal, but rare." This ambivalent view of abortion won't satisfy the Pope, yet it has political appeal since it's how most Americans feel. But implicit in this view is the notion that the right to an abortion is different from other rights. Clinton doesn't say the right to free speech or assembly should be exercised rarely. As president, Clinton signed four executive orders on abortion-related issues on January 22 and reaffirmed the safe, legal, but rare position: "Our goal should be to protect individual freedom, while fostering responsible decision-making, an approach that seeks to protect the right to choose, while reducing the number of abortions." In an interview on cnn with Larry King in July, he boasted that "in the many years I was governor [of Arkansas], the number of abortions performed dropped over the previous years."

Clinton's other position, which emerged during the 1992 campaign, is that of the abortion rights movement. He took more than a page to spell it out in Putting People First, the Clinton-Gore campaign treatise. He vowed to sign the Freedom of Choice Act ("Our government ... has no right to interfere with the difficult and intensely personal decisions women must sometimes make regarding abortion"). He promised to "urge" Congress to repeal the Hyde Amendment. He opposed "any federal attempt to limit access to abortion" through a mandatory waiting period or requirement of parental or spousal consent. He called for measures to protect against "radical demonstrators who illegally block health clinics." Clinton has followed through aggressively on this last promise. Attorney General Janet Reno testified on Capitol Hill in favor of legislation protecting abortion clinics, legislation likely to pass this year.

In his column last April, Gergen pointed to the clash between Clinton's two positions. As president, "he seems intent on keeping the first two-thirds of that promise" to make abortion safe, legal, but rare, Gergen wrote. "He is in serious danger, however, of breaking the last third." By backing repeal of the Hyde Amendment and proposing universal insurance coverage for abortion, Clinton would make abortion "a routine medical procedure easily available to all--no questions, no costs, no issues of morality or personal responsibility." Gergen asked: "This will make abortions `rare'?" If Clinton prevails, he wrote, "there is a real possibility ... the number of abortions will soar again." The percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion doubled after the Roe v. Wade decision (from 12.9 percent to 23.1 percent), stabilizing at 25 percent only after the Hyde Amendment was passed in 1977.

Gergen also suggested Clinton was headed for political trouble on abortion. "Where most Americans have drawn the line is on paying for other people's abortions, especially abortions on demand," he said. Polls show that large majorities oppose government-funded abortions for the poor (69 percent in an abc-Washington Post survey last year) or including abortion coverage in health reform (only 23 percent in favor in a recent cbs-New York Times poll). But Clinton doesn't have a passel of pro-life aides advising him to take these polls into account. I can only think of two Clintonites who are pro-lifers: Ray Flynn, the ambassador to the Vatican, and Paul Begala, unofficial White House adviser. Gergen is pro-choice.

Clinton senses the problem, hence his reluctance to talk about abortion in public or private. When confronted with the issue, he's usually conciliatory toward pro-lifers. At a town meeting in Chillicothe, Ohio, last February he praised a high school senior for voicing his objections to abortion. He downplays abortion coverage in his health plan. He's only for what's "traditionally covered in private health insurance policies," Clinton told mtv in May. (Actually, many policies don't cover abortion.) And he's ready to argue that his plan includes ways (family planning, preventive services, counseling) to curb abortions. Gergen said he finds this "encouraging." But the tension caused by Clinton's two positions won't go away. On September 20, five women Democratic senators visited him in the Oval Office and raised the abortion issue. He promised them he'd fight to kill the Hyde Amendment and preserve abortion coverage. But fight hard? Don't count on it.

Go Back to Shy David's Abortion Page.