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Misperceptions About McCain's Abortion Stance

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's departure from the presidential race earlier this week means that once again, whoever the Republicans nominate will oppose abortion rights and whoever the Democrats nominate will be pro-choice. Many Republican voters, however, seem to believe, incorrectly, that the current Republican front-runner, Arizona Sen. John McCain, supports abortion rights, too.

The misperception is interesting, considering that McCain has not attempted to keep his pro-life views a secret. Here's how he put it on an appearance last year on NBC's Meet the Press:

"I have stated time after time after time that Roe v Wade was a bad decision, that I support a woman — the rights of the unborn — that I have fought for human rights and human dignity throughout my entire political career," McCain said. "To me, it's an issue of human rights and human dignity."

And while now former candidate Fred Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee, won the coveted endorsement from the National Right to Life Committee, McCain's voting record on the issue is just fine, says David O'Steen, the group's executive director.

"He's been very consistent; he hasn't changed his position," O'Steen says. He says that his group has supported McCain in every one of his senate races. "We've always considered him pro-life," he says.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, says her group has always considered McCain pro-life as well. And it's not just abortion, she says.

"He voted against family planning, he voted against the freedom of access to clinic entrances — that was about violence against women in clinics," Keenan says, adding, "He voted against funding for teen pregnancy-prevention programs, and making sure that abstinence only was medically accurate. This is very, very extreme."

Yet in Florida's GOP primary on Jan. 29, McCain won 45 percent of Republican voters who said abortion should be legal. That's nearly twice the total of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who used to be pro-choice, but now says he has changed his mind. And Giuliani, who says he still is pro-choice, received just 19 percent of those pro-choice voters.

NARAL's Keenan thinks it's because voters see McCain splitting with Republicans on so many other issues, they assume he must split with them when it comes to abortion as well.

"I think it comes back to that moderate maverick image that he's tried to portray," Keenan says. "But when you peel the onion back, the record shows that this is a guy who's been very anti-choice since he entered the U.S. House of Representatives back in 1983."

Those pro-choice McCain voters may also remember the very public feud McCain has had with the National Right to Life Committee. But that argument wasn't over abortion, says the NRLC's O'Steen; it was over the campaign finance measure that McCain sponsored with Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat.

"The McCain-Feingold Act limited the ability of non-PACS [political action committees] to even mention the name of a candidate within 30 days of a primary, or 60 days of a general election," O'Steen says.

In other words, the dispute was a freedom of speech issue.

McCain's pro-life record isn't totally spotless: He did vote in favor of expanding federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. But both pro-choice and pro-life groups say that if McCain becomes the Republican nominee, they'll work hard to make sure voters know what his abortion position really is.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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