MANY VIEWERS WERE startled to hear George W. Bush and Dick Cheney sound kinder and gentler on the hot-button issue of abortion rights. In the first TV debate, Bush seemed to declare that he would not try to overturn the FDA's decision approving the abortion drug RU-486, that he wouldn't make reversing Roe v. Wade a litmus test for judges, and that he'd seek ''common ground'' on the divisive issue of reproductive rights.
Cheney, debating Joe Lieberman, said he'd look for ways to reach ''across the divide.'' The stance of both Bush and Cheney seemed in sharp contrast to that of the Republican National Convention, where the platform committee ostracized prochoice Republicans and not a single abortion-rights advocate was allowed floor time.
What gives is that reproductive rights groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood have mounted a phenomenally successful organizing campaign, and Bush and his handlers can read polls. But despite the posturing and disingenuous answers, neither Bush nor Cheney has fundamentally changed his antiabortion position. ''Bush's stated intent is to use all powers at his disposal to limit choice,'' says Alice Germond, executive vice president of NARAL.
For two years, the NARAL Foundation has been running ''Choice for America'' TV spots in key states, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The ads all tap the theme that Americans, and women in particular, have the right to control their own persons.
During the Sydney Olympics, one ad showed a young woman on a high diving board. After gracefully executing a perfect dive, she looks directly at the camera. The narration declares, ''More than anything, I ask for courage. Courage to grow, to make my own decisions, to make mistakes. My life is blessed with so many choices. Please, grant me the strength and wisdom to make the right ones. And the courage, always, to defend my right to do so.''
A second ad shows a mother of a 6-year-old daughter learning to ride a bike. As the mother lets go of the bike and the daughter rides, wobbly at first, on her own, the female narrator says: ''I want every good thing in the world for you. I want you to know, right down to your toes, that all of life's choices are open to you. Sure, you'll skin your knee along the way, but you'll learn. That it's your body, your life, and your responsibility. Never give up your freedom to choose. Your dreams are tied to it.''
The tag line for the campaign: What's life without choice?
Besides these TV ads, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and kindred groups have mobilized millions of supporters on the ground. In the swing states where the ads have been running, polls show that the gap between prochoice and antiabortion voters has widened to a majority of 22 points in Wisconsin, 21 points in Michigan, and 18 points in central Ohio.
Women swing voters tend to be prochoice, and they tend to vote.
After the debates, social conservatives seemed stunned.
Gary Bauer, the antiabortion crusader, wrote in an op-ed column in The New York Times that ''millions of men and women of faith who care about family and life issues [have] had their hearts broken in two consecutive debates as they watched a lackluster defense of the sanctity of life.''
But Bauer's heartbroken allies needn't worry. What we have here is nothing but creative posturing. The Republican Party is still officially committed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Governor Bush has signed 18 pieces of legislation in Texas narrowing reproductive choice.
Review the debates carefully and they reveal nothing but carefully scripted and misleading evasion. Pressed to support RU-486, Bush seemed surprised that the president appoints the head of the FDA. (Anybody who can pronounce Chernomyrdin must know that the chief executive names agency heads.)
Bush offered soothing words, but he did not rule out legislation to ban RU-486, nor did he disown his party's position on Roe v. Wade. Cheney, likewise, feigned surprise that congressional Republicans had sponsored legislation hamstringing access to RU-486, and he and dodged the opportunity to oppose restrictions.
RU-486 revolutionizes the politics of abortion. Antiabortion activists reopened Roe v. Wade by dramatizing ''partial birth abortions,'' their made-up name for a very rare, emergency, late-term procedure. But with an abortion pill, accidental conceptions can be reversed while cells are still microscopic.
If Gore is elected and RU-486 stays legal, the abortion wars are moot. But if Bush wins, RU-486 could be overturned - and so could Roe v. Wade. Talk about a momentous choice.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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