Calling himself a "pro-life person," the Texas governor and likely presidential candidate told The Associated Press, "America is not ready to overturn Roe v. Wade because America's hearts are not right. And so, in the meantime, instead of arguing over Roe v. Wade, what we ought to do is promote policies that reduce abortions."
The Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion.
Bush discussed abortion and a wide range of issues in his state Capitol office Monday, as supporters filed papers in Washington forming a campaign committee. Bush has made clear he intends to run for the Republican nomination in 2000.
The filing marks a new and tougher stage for the Texas governor, who has so far avoided taking sides on controversial issues. His GOP rivals, trailing in public opinion polls, hope the hashing out of his positions will hurt Bush.
Indeed, some social conservatives criticized how he answered an abortion question at a Sunday news conference. Bush told reporters abortions should be "rare" and there should be a "pro-life tenor" in the GOP, but he avoided specifics by saying questions about first-trimester abortions are "hypothetical."
"Liberal Republicans who advocate taking either weak positions or no positions on the tough issues are the ones who have created the visionless, listless image the Republican Party suffers from," said L. Brent Bozell III, head of the Conservative Victory Committee.
Bush clarified his position in a lengthy exchange Monday that produced his most extensive comments on abortion so far. The conversation reflected his desire to appease conservatives without using language that turns off swing voters, particularly women, whom he hopes to win over.
"There are a lot of Americans who don't view the abortion issue as a matter of life. I do," Bush said. "That's one reason why I'm a pro-life person."
He was asked if first-term abortions are improper. "I personally believe there is life, and therefore take the position I take," Bush said.
Does that mean, if it were up to him, that all abortions would be constitutionally banned? "Yes, replied the governor, except for circumstances threatening the life of the mother, rape or incest.
That applies to all three trimesters? "Right," he said. "On the other hand, I'm realistic enough person to know that America is not ready to ban abortions," he added. "America as a country is not prepared to send a message to senators and House members that we want you do this, we want you to amend the Constitution" to ban abortions.
Lawmakers should focus on more attainable goals, such as requiring parental notification or consent for a teen-ager's abortion and banning so-called "partial-birth" abortions, Bush said. "We ought to say, `We understand that the issue has been very polarizing. It's been debated for 30 years. There's strong positions on boh sides.' But, in the meantime, until America's hearts change, put policies in place ... that reduce abortions."
Though Bush has made huge inroads among conservative leaders, many are still trying to get a handle on his positions in light of their mixed feelings toward his father. Former President George Bush opposed abortions except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the woman's life but tried to mollify abortion rights supporters in 1992 by saying he would support a granddaughter who hypothetically found herself pregnant: "Who else's decision could it be?" he said.
Phyllis Schlafly, head of the conservative Eagle Forum, says the governor's answers won't satisfy anti-abortion voters. "Real pro-lifers think the unborn baby is a life, and he admitted that. But he's admitting that there's some circumstances under which he's willing to take a life," she said.
Conservative activist Paul Weyrich said Bush is unfortunately correct that America is not ready for tough anti-abortion measures. But he said the Texas governor should promise to sway public opinion. "The question is whether he would use the presidency to try to change their hearts. We don't know that," Weyrich said.
Mark Miller, executive director of the centrist Republican Leadership Council, said Bush should be praised for trying to keep the party from falling apart over divisive issues, saying, "As long as he's respecting other peoples' positions, other people should respect his."
On other issues, Bush said he:
- Opposes same-sex marriages. "Marriage is sanctified by the Almighty and it's between a man and a woman."
- Decided to form the exploratory committee after a minister, in a sermon before his Jan. 19 inauguration, made a "call to service." Bush said: "I heard the call."
Written By RON FOURNIER, AP Political Writer