WASHINGTON -- The tone of the Democratic candidate's answer to the U.S. Catholic Conference's questionnaire, released last Wednesday, was stunning: "Al Gore opposes late-term abortions and the procedure of partial-birth abortions." Only two sentences later did he add that prohibitions of partial-birth abortions "should include protections for the life and health of the mother."
True champions of abortion rights don't even recognize the term "partial-birth abortion," and previously Vice President Gore had always been careful to put "so-called" in front of it. What has happened to the Al Gore who last June excoriated as "bitter and divisive" the dissenters in the 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision striking down Nebraska's ban on the procedure, who said only his election would preserve its legal use?
The answer is that he is wooing the soft sector of the Catholic vote that swings between Democrats and Republicans, and so has softened his position on abortion. That's not hard for Gore. The fiercely pro-life young congressman from Tennessee of two decades ago by January 2000 had become the National Abortion Rights Action League's (NARAL) favorite against longtime choice champion Bill Bradley.
When Gore last winter was NARAL's undiluted champion, Democrats talked about abortion as a wedge issue against George W. Bush. That strategy is ancient history. On the campaign trail, Gore borrows the phrase of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago to talk about an undefined "common ground" on abortion.
Actually, as Gore's close advisers insist, only the rhetoric has changed. The vice president still advocates the sham partial-birth bill with a loophole for the "health" of the mother that in truth gives doctors performing the procedure carte blanche.
Last April 26, the American Medical Association (AMA) -- surely no hotbed of pro-life sentiment -- reaffirmed its opposition to "intact dilation and extraction, more commonly referred to as partial-birth abortion." Significantly, said the AMA, there is no "identified situation" in which it is necessary to use this procedure of removing the intact fetus and killing it.
That "health" is an open loophole was ignored by the Catholic News Service in reporting an interview with Gore in which he pledged to sign a "late term, so-called partial-birth abortion (inserting the "so-called" this time), so long as there are provisions to allow doctors to protect the life or health of the mother." The candidate's claim that this provision is a "symbolic" issue was not challenged by the interviewer.
Next the vice president pushed his "movement toward common ground," describing it this way: "There are ways to sharply reduce the number of times a woman ever expresses a desire for an abortion by reducing the number of situations." What does that mean? Nothing, but Gore was not called on to explain it.
The Catholic News Service is an agency of the U.S. Catholic Conference, and its soft treatment of the Gore interview is of a piece with the conference's non-committal reaction to his questionnaire answers. Irrationally terrified of reprisals by the Internal Revenue Service, the church's American bishops are in a perpetual dither over being accused of playing politics.
The bishops left others to rebut the vice president. Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, chairman of the congressional pro-life caucus, called Gore's stance "a big lie designed to hide his extremist view on abortions." Deal Hudson, who runs Crisis Magazine, asserted that Cardinal Bernadin's advocacy of "common ground" among Catholics was never intended "to accept that some number of innocent lives can be taken."
Gov. Bush is not comfortable with the abortion issue and slipped during the Boston presidential debate in echoing the Clinton-Gore call for "rare" abortions. Otherwise, Bush has maintained a consistent pro-life position, including unequivocal opposition to partial-birth abortion. He now says he would sign the bill by Rep. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a physician, to regulate the distribution of the RU-486 anti-abortion pill (whose use is enthusiastically endorsed by Gore).
Polls show Bush ahead among Catholic voters, who are crucial in battleground states. No wonder that Al Gore calls for "common ground." The wonder is that the Catholic bishops have given him the unimpeded use of their own transmission belt to communicants.