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The Abortion Answer

As she demonstrated in last week's debate, Kay Bailey Hutchison still struggles with how to describe her position on an issue that many Republicans consider sacrosanct.

When laying out your position on abortion rights in a GOP primary debate, you don’t want your audience to laugh. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison learned that the hard way last week.

At the KERA debate, Dave Montgomery of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram asked Hutchison if the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision should remain in effect. “What concerns me about that is that we would then have some states that would allow abortion as the baby is coming out of the birth canal,” Hutchison responded. “I would never support that. I have voted against it, and I would not want that to be the situation in any state in our country.  And that is why I have stated that position.”

“So you would not support the overturning of Roe v. Wade?” asked KERA's Shelley Kofler.

“What I’m saying,” replied Hutchison as the crowd began to chuckle at her discomfort, “is you’re going to have abortion havens.”

Hutchison’s difficulty with this question is nothing new.

Her detractors are circulating an old clip from a debate during her first run at the Senate, in 1993. In it, she said, “I am very comfortable that Roe v. Wade is working very well.”  Her position was that there should be no government intervention before viability (which she placed in "the six-month range") but that states should be allowed to establish “reasonable restrictions such as parental consent.”

“I’m not for abortion,” she said then. “It makes me very uncomfortable. I would never have one. I value life very much. The question is, should I make that decision for you, and that’s where I come down on the other side.” During the 2004 Republican state convention, she offered reporters a similar explanation.

Her primary opponent, Gov. Rick Perry, sees an opportunity here to attack on two fronts: abortion, and what he referred to in the debate as Hutchison’s “issues with consistency.”

“Of course it’s a big issue,” says Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier. “The bottom line is that Gov. Perry is the most pro-life governor Texas has ever had. Not only has Sen. Hutchison waffled on the issue, she’s openly a pro-choice candidate.”

Not so fast, says the Hutchison camp.  “She has always come down on the side of restricting abortion,” says campaign spokesman Joe Pounder.  “Nothing will stop Rick Perry from launching negative attacks, even the truth sometimes. When he wants to launch a negative attack, we can point to a solid record of [Hutchison] coming down on the side of life.”

While the campaigns squabble, advocacy groups on both sides of the issue agree on Hutchison’s record. She has a lifetime rating of 94 percent from the National Right to Life Committee. Her consistent pro-restriction votes in the Senate earned her a score of 0 in NARAL Pro-Choice America’s “Congressional Record on Choice” ratings in over half of her 16 years in the Senate.  (The highest she ever earned was 20 percent in 2000.)

“She has a number of votes we agree with and, frankly, we are grateful to her for that,” admits Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, which has endorsed Perry. Yet Pojman found Hutchison’s answer in the most recent debate “ludicrous,” because, he says, as long as abortion is legal, the whole country is an “abortion haven” — despite the many Hutchison-backed restrictions. “Frankly, those restrictions are the easy things,” he says.  “I don’t want to diminish them, but the core issue of the pro-life movement is life beginning at conception. When people think of someone who is ‘pro-life,’ they think of someone who wants to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

Hutchison voted for a 2003 resolution in the Senate stating that the Roe decision “was appropriate and secures an important constitutional right; and such decision should not be overturned.” That may be too much for some anti-abortion advocates, but it’s not enough for her to win acceptance from the pro-choice crowd.

“We define 'pro-choice' as every woman having the right to make personal decisions regarding the full range of reproductive choices, including preventing unintended pregnancy, bearing healthy children, and choosing legal abortion,” says NARAL Pro-Choice Texas executive director Sara Cleveland. “Thus, by our definition, no, Sen. Hutchison's voting record does not indicate that she is pro-choice."

Hutchison isn’t the only Texas politician whose rhetoric on abortion has changed with time and situation.

In 2006, The Dallas Morning News reported that, during the general election campaign, Perry gave a non-answer when asked if Roe should be overturned: “The final disposition of Roe v. Wade is up to Congress or the courts.” Not exactly the language you would expect from the most pro-life governor of all time, but Frazier insists, “Concerning Roe v. Wade, he has always and continues to support any measure that would overturn it.” 

Though it may sound like Hutchison has changed her explanation of her position from the start of her Senate career to today, her actions have been consistent. That they include both maintaining Roe and supporting restrictions on abortion (including all those signed by Perry) doesn't make for the easiest soundbite in a debate.

According to the National Right to Life Committee, the gap between Perry’s and Hutchison’s records is, at most a mere 6 percent (assuming a 100 for Perry, who didn't have to take the Senate votes Hutchison took). However, as Perry prepares to speak at the Jan. 23 Texas Rally for Life, he is likely more concerned with the relatively gargantuan 40 percent gap — 69 to 29 — that a Survey USA poll found between pro-life and pro-choice Republicans who voted in the 2008 presidential primary.

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