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Slate's Human Nature: Is Frist Really Pro-Choice?

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is getting some payback for his decision last week to support more federal funding for stem cell research. Frist has not been invited to address Justice Sunday II; that's a televised Evangelical rally in Frist's home state of Tennessee. He was the featured speaker at the first Justice Sunday. Frist says he's pro-life and he has a 100-percent pro-life voting record from the National Right to Life Committee. But writing at slate.com, Will Saletan calls Frist a closet pro-choicer, and Will joins us now.

Will, which is it? Is Frist pro-life or pro-choice?

WILL SALETAN (Slate): Well, Madeleine, it's both, evidently. I mean, Frist obviously calls himself a pro-lifer and he uses the language that pro-lifers use. He talks about the value of unborn human life and the sanctity of unborn human life, but he plainly supports stem cell research, which involves the destruction of embryos, in this case. And if you read what he has said, both within the last week and four years about, about stem cell research, he is emphatically pro-choice about the right of parents who produce IVF embryos to decide what to do with them.

I'll just read you a couple of quotes. Four years ago, he said that, "The decision has to be made independently by both members of a couple to discard embryos remaining." And last week, he said, "Obviously, any decision about the destiny of an embryo must clearly and ultimately rest with the parents." Well, my goodness, that is pro-choice language.

BRAND: And you also looked at statements he made some 10 years ago when he was running for the Senate.

SALETAN: Yeah. You know, I started to ask myself, `Well, is he just pro-choice about embryo research? What about abortion?' He says he's pro-life, but listen to these quotes from when he ran for the Senate in 1994. He said, "I'll work hard to keep the federal government out of that decision-making process." He said abortion was a very private decision. He said, "I believe that abortion is an option that a woman should have," and then he said, "I don't think those sorts of decisions need to be decided at the highest levels of federal government." I read that and I ask myself: `If this man is even trying to sound like a pro-lifer, is he really a pro-lifer in his heart?'

BRAND: All right. So the question is: How did he get that 100-percent pro-life voting record?

SALETAN: Well, the answer is Bill Frist came into the Senate in the beginning of 1995, three years after the Supreme Court of the United States, in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey had reaffirmed Roe v. Wade. And what that did was they made it impossible for senators to outlaw abortion short of passing a constitutional amendment. They just said it isn't constitutional to ban abortion unless you change the Constitution itself.

So Frist never had to vote on what senators had to vote on in the 1980s and earlier, which was whether abortion should be legal at all. All of his votes are about whether we should fund abortion-related activities and whether partial-birth abortions, a very particular kind of abortion, should be illegal.

BRAND: So, Will, has Bill Frist made any statements, gave any indication at which point he believes the human embryo becomes a life, a life to protect?

SALETAN: No, he hasn't done that, and that's really what he's going to have to do. I mean, you can't really go forward with the kind of career that Bill Frist envisions for himself and not make clear where you stand. You can't be emphatically pro-choice about embryos and have said what he said in the 1994 campaign that sounds awfully pro-choice and call yourself a pro-lifer and have a pro-life voting record on these other issues. Somehow you need to stand up and clarify what your philosophy is.

BRAND: Well, certainly, politically he'll have to make that decision. He is almost certainly planning a presidential run in 2008. So do you think that those political ambitions are what's behind all this?

SALETAN: Well, you could argue that he's pandering to the middle; I've heard that within the last week. But you know, until Frist gave this last speech very emphatically for embryonic stem cell research, he was supporting the president's policy, which was to restrict the research, restricting funding for the research. And everyone said at that point that Bill Frist was pandering to the right, because in a Republican presidential primary, it's the social conservatives who have the clout.

Look, I think that was true. I think that he was bending over to try to pander to the right. I don't see any logic for him careerwise politically in coming back to the middle and saying he supports this research. I think he's got to be saying what's in his heart. You can't have it both ways. You can't say he's pandering to the middle if he takes one position, he's pandering to the right if he takes the other position. I think the political logic was in pandering to the right. I think for him to come out now and say that he supports the stem cell research means that he's going against the political logic and he must be doing what's in his heart. But that leaves Bill Frist with the job of explaining, to both pro-life and pro-choice people, what exactly is in his heart.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Will Saletan. He writes on science and politics for the online magazine Slate. He's also the author of the book "Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War."

Thanks a lot, Will.

SALETAN: Thank you, Madeleine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).
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