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Presidential Hopeful Dennis Kucinich Moves Over to Pro-Choice Camp
Published on Sunday, February 23, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Ohio Presidential Hopeful Pivots Over to Pro-Choice Camp
Ex-abortion foe Kucinich defends move
by Marc Sandalow
 

WASHINGTON -- Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a recent entrant to the Democratic presidential sweepstakes, is in many ways a perfect match for Northern California. He opposes war with Iraq. He advocates universal health care, workers' rights and a holistic world view. He introduced legislation to create a cabinet-level Department of Peace. He is not just a vegetarian, he is a vegan.

But Kucinich also possesses one of the most anti-abortion voting records of any Democrat in Congress.

During his eight years in the House, Kucinich voted with abortion-rights advocates barely 10 percent of the time. Twice in the past three years, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America, gave him a rating of "zero."

On the stump this past week, and in an interview with The Chronicle, Kucinich now describes himself as "pro-choice." He said he has undergone a slow evolution that has led him to the conclusion that legal abortions are not only constitutionally sound, but also fundamental to a woman's equality.

Yet his candidacy poses a test for the Democratic Party that has made abortion rights a top-tier issue that it believes will be instrumental in its quest to unseat President Bush, a longtime abortion foe.

Can liberals embrace a candidate who as recently as 2001 voted to support Bush's decision to withhold international family-planning money from organizations that perform, or even discuss, abortions? Will the Democratic Party, let alone the Bay Area, open its arms and wallets to a presidential candidate who, during 1999 and 2000, sided with the National Right to Life Committee on 19 of 20 votes?

Twenty years ago, it was not terribly unusual to be an anti-abortion Democrat. Today, the list of well-known Democrats who oppose legalized abortions is almost nonexistent. Fewer than three dozen Democrats in the House regularly vote to restrict abortions -- and not one of them is nationally prominent.

Former Democratic Whip David Bonior of Michigan was anti-abortion, as was former Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey, and each paid a political price within the party.

Kucinich said he hopes the party faithful will accept that his current support for abortion rights is heartfelt. Though the announcement coincided with his entry into the presidential contest, Kucinich insists the evolution began long before.

"This isn't something that I arrived at overnight," said Kucinich, who is methodical in his approach to every issue, from war in Iraq to his opposition to genetically modified foods.

"I don't believe in abortions, few do," he said. "I do, however, believe in choice."

Kucinich, who is Catholic and represents a working class and heavily Catholic section of Cleveland, voted repeatedly to bar poor women from using Medicaid to pay for abortions, to limit federal dollars in paying for overseas abortions and to ban a procedure labelled by opponents as "partial-birth abortions."

"He was solid," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director at the National Right to Life Committee, which consistently gave Kucinich ratings above 90 percent.

Last year, Kucinich switched his previous vote to ban abortions performed in oversees military medical facilities; he also voted in favor of a law that would make it easier to transport minors seeking abortions over state lines. That year, he earned a 25 percent rating from NARAL.

Asked how he would vote today on public funding of abortions for the poor or on repealing restrictions on international family-planning money, Kucinich said: "I'm not going to go over every piece of legislation. But you can expect that I am going to continue to take a thoughtful approach, and that doesn't preclude the poor from having the government support their right to choose."

"Congressman Kucinich has been at work thinking about a lot of these issues,

and his votes reflect a thoughtful journey," said NARAL President Kate Michelman. "I do accept, and I do welcome, that he believes the right to choose is fundamental."

Few people believe Kucinich has a realistic shot at capturing the Democratic presidential nomination. He is far more likely to succeed as a niche candidate -- someone who appeals to a devoted wing of the party, and is able to use the platform to advance a few core ideas and perhaps elevate their own standing as well.

That will mean winning hearts, and political contributions, in places like California, where millions support Kucinich's opposition to war, but where the Democratic Party has been unwavering on abortion. All 33 of California's Democratic House members and both Senators are ardently pro-choice. Not a single anti-abortion governor has been elected since the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe decision 30 years ago. The last pro-choice candidate to run at the top of a ticket to win statewide approval was George Bush in 1988.

"A candidate in California with a zero rating?" asked one incredulous party official. "I've never heard of such a thing."

Kucinich rejects the notion that the change in his abortion views is simply a matter of political expediency.

"People want to make sure that their president has a capacity to grow and a capacity to evolve," Kucinich said. "I've been thinking about this for years. . . . None of us have all the answers on a given day."

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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