WASHINGTON—How the rights of the unborn in America will be treated as the new millennium begins will depend in large part on whom the country chooses as the next president.

That's why pro-lifers have a watchful eye on Texas Gov. George W. Bush, called “the anointed one” by Washington media for his seemingly unstoppable front-runner status in the race for the Republican Party's nomination.

In a speech June 29 before the National Right to Life Committee, Bush said, “I do not believe the promises of the Declaration of Independence are just for the strong, the independent, the healthy. They are for everyone — including unborn children.”

“I am pro-life,” Bush declared. “I believe my party should keep its pro-life commitments. … I support the goal of a constitutional amendment.”

Bush also said that he would only appoint judges to the Supreme Court “who share my conservative philosophy, and will strictly interpret the Constitution rather than legislating from the bench.”

The comments were overshadowed by earlier indications of a less than hard-line pro-life stance. While campaigning in Pennsylvania, Bush was challenged about whom he would choose to share his ticket in a presidential campaign. Bush said he “would rule nothing out.” In another comment, Bush said he would not require that nominees for the Supreme Court declare themselves to be pro-life.

Rivals for the Republican nomination immediately seized upon the statements as a warning that Bush is drifting from the party's pro-life stance, and media reports, such as The New York Times on June 29, fueled the debate.

Bay Buchanan, sister and top political adviser of former GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, said that if Bush added a pro-choice candidate on the GOP ticket, it might spur her brother to make an independent run for the White House. “We don't expect that to happen, but if it does, he will have to make that decision at that time,” Bay Buchanan said. “We expect the ticket to be pro-life.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, known for his pro-life efforts, is also seeking the GOP nomination. After Bush's comments, he openly mused a third-party run himself.

David O'steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, urged a less dramatic approach to questions about Bush.

He recommended that pro-lifers stop attacking fellow Republicans and begin focusing on their likely Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore. “There has been zero focus on Gore's possible running mates, Gore's possible Supreme Court nominees and Gore's overall abortion positions.”

He pointed out that a third party would split likely Republican voters into two camps, and help Gore — a vigorous supporter of abortion — win. Said O'steen, “Anything that helps elect Al Gore president hurts the pro-life cause. He is certain to give us pro-choice judges. People need to focus on Gore and show how extremist his positions are on abortion.”

Importance of Judges

Pro-life political watchers say a key reason to have a strong presidential candidate is the effect the president has on the number of pro-life federal judges, whose decisions significantly effect the status of the unborn.

In addition to the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court may be a big factor in the upcoming presidential election. Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot noted that the winner could appoint up to three judges to the highest court in the land. “If we lose the presidency,” overturning Roe v. Wade will have “no chance at all for 50 years or at least a generation,” Gigot speculated.

If new federal judges say they are pro-life, they will need a committed president to back them up, syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who recently converted to Catholicism, told the Register. They will need all the help they can get as “they will face tough confirmation battles” in the Senate. If they declare their pro-life leanings, it will be even tougher, he said.

That's why another comment of Bush's has received a lot of attention by pro-life activists. Bush told reporters in Texas that he refused to adopt what is known as a “litmus test,” whereby a president would only appoint explicitly pro-life judges to the Supreme Court.

Media-watchdog and pro-lifer Brent Bozell II said that pro-life groups should demand further commitment from front-runner Bush. “It's mind-boggling how the pro-life community is rolling on” the Supreme Court issue, he said.

But O'steen again defended Bush. The “litmus test,” he said, is a “secular media ploy.”

“The media only focus on Republican candidates and characterize them in one of two ways: They care only about abortion or they picture them as weakening the party's positions,” O'steen said. “Either way the pro-abortion Democratic candidate benefits.”

Ann Stone, national chairman of Republicans for Choice, said she thinks that Bush's comments reflect a more honest assessment of American attitudes on abortion than the past platforms. “What he's doing is focusing on what will bring abortion rates down.”

“Calling for a Human Life Amendment is a dead end, has no support, and wouldn't work,” Stone said. Stone herself favors ending third-trimester abortions as well as a parental notification bill.

Vice President Who?

Another issue of contention is a potential vice presidential candidate.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, was critical of Bush's signals of openness to pro-choice running mates.

“Bush said he's wide open on VP,” Lambro observed. “I don't think that's wise. Coalition politics, from Roosevelt to Reagan, is critical to winning. [Pro-lifers] are part of the coalition. To say you're wide open only gives fodder to people like [pro-life presidential candidate Gary] Bauer and Buchanan.”

But Gigot said that Bush should be allowed to consider some pro-choice running mates without drawing wrath from pro-lifers. “I don't think that the VP is a deal breaker.” What matters is how pro-choice the running mate would be, Gigot contended.

“There's a difference between [New Jersey Gov.] Christine Whitman and a [Pennsylvania Gov.] Tom Ridge,” he said. “Whitman is an in-your-face, pro-choice Republican. … She vetoes the partial-birth abortion ban. She sounds like The New York Times editorial page.”

In contrast, Gigot said that Ridge would support a partial-birth abortion ban, a parental notification bill, but draw the line at first-trimester abortions. “There's an accommodation that can be reached with Tom Ridge that can't be reached with Chris Whitman,” Gigot said.

Columnist Novak disagreed. Bush should be “strongly advised that a pro-choice running mate would be disastrous.”

Are Republicans Pro-Life?

In the face of such back-and-forth arguments, some pro-life activists are so fed up with both Republicans and Democrats that they have abandoned both parties for a little-known third party called the U.S. Taxpayers Party. Syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran said of the Republican Party, “It's been 27 years. What have they done? … [The Republican establishment] all want the issue to go away.”

Gigot called talk of a third-party “suicidal.”

“It's ‘rule or ruin’ politics,” he maintained. “The people speaking out on this — Bauer, Buchanan and Smith — they aren't getting a lot of help from the Right to Life Committee, [evangelical Pat] Robertson, even [Jerry] Falwell.”

Instead, Gigot said, leading conservatives have adopted Bush's gradual approach on abortion. “What's changing is the pro-life section of the party's view of what is an effective strategy,” Gigot said. They have decided, “that the incremental-ist strategy is better to get what they want.”

With the incremental approach, Republicans can pass certain curbs on abortion, Lambro said. “Bush said he'd sign a partial-birth abortion ban. He said he would end federal funding of abortions. The key is that the national pro-life organizations say he's got a good record.”

Lambro also said he thinks that the Republican “shift” on abortion represents only a change in tactics. “The base of the party is not drifting.” He said that Republicans have “cemented their position” over the last five presidential elections. “I don't think they'll move away quickly.”

Josh Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.