A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

McCain’s Position on Abortion


Q: Does McCain want to ban "all" abortions?

A: He has said he favors a Constitutional amendment that would outlaw abortion. He would allow exceptions in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake.

FULL QUESTION

In an Obama radio ad it was stated McCain would favor a Constitutional amendment banning abortion. Would you clarify this?

FULL ANSWER

The Obama campaign made no announcement when it released this ad Sept. 2, and it refuses "for competitive reasons" to say where it is running. Our readers have heard it in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., where it reaches Virginia and Maryland as well.

Obama Radio Ad:
"Choice"

Obama: I'm Barack Obama, candidate for president. And I approved this message.

Val Baron: As a nurse practitioner with Planned Parenthood, I know abortion is one of most difficult decisions a woman will ever make. I’m Val Baron.

Let me tell you – if Roe v. Wade is overturned, the lives and health of women will be put at risk.

That’s why this election is so important. John McCain's out of touch with women today. McCain wants to take away our right to choose. That’s what women need to understand. That’s how high the stakes are.

Announcer: As president, John McCain will make abortion illegal. McCain says quote, “I do not support Roe v. Wade. It should be overturned.”

And listen to McCain’s answer on Meet the Press:

Tim Russert (Jan. 30 2000): A constitutional amendment to ban all abortions … You’re for that?”

McCain: Yes, sir.

Val Baron: We can’t let John McCain take away our right to choose. We can’t let him take us back.

Announcer: Paid for by Obama for America.

It is accurate as far as it goes. It features an eight-year-old audio clip in which McCain said "yes sir" when asked if he supported a Constitutional amendment to "ban all abortions."

Nevertheless, McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers objects to the ad. His quibble is with a single word – "all." McCain does not in fact oppose all abortions. He would allow abortions in cases where pregnancies resulted from rape or incest, or pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother.

The ad's announcer also quotes McCain as saying that the Supreme Court 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade should be overturned. That's correct. McCain holds that position. Overturning that decision would not automatically lead to outlawing abortions everywhere, much less "all" abortions. The decision held that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a woman a right to an abortion during the first several months of pregnancy. Overturning that decision would allow states to set more restrictive laws, but not all states are likely to do so. (See another Ask FactCheck item we posted for more on that topic.)

The ad's claim that McCain would "make abortion illegal" rests on his support for a Constitutional amendment that would go much farther than overturning Roe. Such an amendment, if ratified, would be binding everywhere, not just in states that enact laws against abortion. An amendment would not only make abortion illegal, abortion would become unconstitutional.

But which abortions? McCain waffled a bit on that question back in 2000, when he ran unsuccessfully against George W. Bush for the Republican nomination. McCain said in January 2000 that he would ban "all" abortions, but he later strongly supported exceptions for rape, incest and a threat to the mother's life.

Ban All Abortions

McCain's support for banning "all" abortions seemed unequivocal when he stated it during a Jan. 30, 2000, appearance on "Meet the Press" with the late Tim Russert. The ad quotes only a few words. Here's more of that exchange:

Russert (Jan. 30, 2000): A constitutional amendment to ban all abortions?
McCain: Yes, sir.
Russert: You're for that?
McCain: Yes, sir.
Russert: If, in fact, all abortions were banned in America …
McCain: I understand.
Russert: …under President McCain …
McCain: Understand.
Russert: … let's look at our country. What would happen to a woman who had an abortion?
McCain: Obviously, it would be illegal, but I would not prosecute a woman who did that. I would think that it would be such a terrible trauma that — but I would not make those abortions available or easy as they are today in America.

The Three Exceptions

Two weeks later, on Feb. 15, 2000, during a Republican candidate debate in South Carolina, McCain spoke strongly in favor of exceptions for rape, incest and threat to life. He pushed rival Bush hard to support adding those exceptions to the GOP platform. Bush, though he said he also favored such exceptions, would not endorse writing them into the platform. Here is some of that exchange:

McCain: George, do you believe in the exemption in abortion, case of abortion, for rape, incest and life of the mother?
Bush: Yes, I do. I do.
McCain: Then, you know, it's interesting, you were talking about printed material that's mailed out. Here's one that says that George W. Bush supports the pro-life plank. The pro-life plank.
Bush: I do.
McCain: Yes. So in other words …
Bush: Yes …
McCain: … your position is that you believe there's an exemption for rape, incest and the life of the mother, but you want the platform that you're supposed to be leading to have no exemption.
Bush: Yes, but …
McCain: Help me out there, will you? …
Bush: The platform talks about – it doesn't talk about what specifically should be in the Constitutional amendment. … The platform speaks about a Constitutional amendment. It doesn't refer to how that Constitutional amendment ought to be defined.

For the Record

For the record, the GOP platform for 2008 still does not specify any exceptions. It speaks only of support for "a human life amendment" but doesn't say precisely what it should say:

2008 Republican Platform: [W]e assert the inherent dignity and sanctity of all human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.We support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.

Also for the record, McCain has said he doubts a Constitutional amendment is likely. He said on ABC's "This Week" on Nov. 19, 2006:

Sen. McCain: I don't think a Constitutional amendment is probably going to take place. But I do believe that it's very likely or possible that a Supreme Court should – could overturn Roe v. Wade, which would then return these decisions to the states, which I support that.

McCain's Web site states that he supports overturning Roe v. Wade, calling such a move "one step in the long path toward ending abortion.

–Brooks Jackson

Sources

Republican National Committee, "2008 Republican Platform," Sep 2008; 51.

Transcript, NBC Meet the Press 30 Jan 2000.

Transcript, CNN's Larry King Live, South Carolina Republican Debate
15 Feb 2000.

Transcript, ABC This Week 19 Nov 2006.