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Citing an unprecedented “assault” on abortion rights, two likely candidates for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination vowed to protect the Roe v. Wade decision through legislation.

Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., appearing Tuesday night with five other 2004 hopefuls at a gala 30th anniversary event held by NARAL Pro-choice America, pledged he would fight to “pass the language of Roe v. Wade into the law of this great country.”

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Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.

“We need a strategy and a plan and a vision,” to do this, he said, “and it all begins with not ceding the moral high ground.”

The former House minority leader declared, “To those who would preach morality to a woman facing the most important decision of her life, I say this, ‘Walk in her shoes.’”

“There is nothing moral in strong-arming a personal belief,” he continued. “And there is nothing moral to a presidency that imposes personal morality with acts of governmental power.”

Most of Gephardt’s eight-minute speech was about his transformation from a Baptist-raised pro-life congressman to a leading defender of abortion rights.

Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., vowed to help pass a federal “Freedom of Choice Act” that would protect abortion rights regardless of any court decision. Ten years ago, Democratic senators, responding to Supreme Court decisions that curbed abortion rights, such as Webster v. Reproductive Health Services in 1989, tried unsuccessfully to codify Roe v. Wade with the “Freedom of Choice Act of 1993.”

After an introduction which noted that the six Democrats were appearing together for the first time, NARAL President Kate Michelman walked up to each one as they stood in a row and gave hugs and kisses. After their speeches, Michelman turned to the crowd, beaming, “Are they wonderful? Do they represent pro-choice America?”

About 1,500 abortion rights activists and supporters attended the event at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., including former Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

The other likely presidential candidates who spoke were Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Rev. Al Sharpton, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. The event was carried live by CSPAN.

Sharpton, noting the U.S. is engaged in a war on terror, called on his audience to “not tolerate terrifying people that want to go to family planning centers right here in the United States” and commit violent acts.

Lieberman wary of Supreme Court

Lieberman – who says his Orthodox Jewish faith is central to his life and relevant to his campaign – told participants that, “We have much to honor tonight, but we have very little time to celebrate.”

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Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

He warned that “the president and so many in Congress are preparing a fresh assault on the right to choose, probably the most concerted, aggressive attacks we’ve seen since Roe was decided.”

Lieberman asserted that “the right to choose is in serious danger from the courts because this president is imposing a rigid litmus test on judicial nominations.”

The former vice-presidential candidate took a jab at the Supreme Court for decisions in 2000 that stopped attempts by running mate Al Gore to continue counting votes in Florida.

“Don’t worry, some people say, the courts won’t ever really outlaw abortion,” Lieberman said. “But my friends, the courts are powerful and do things we don’t expect, especially the Supreme Court.

“Just ask Tipper and Karenna and Al and Hadassah and I, after that 2000 election,” he said to applause. “So, take those courts seriously.”

Lieberman also warned that the House of Representatives’ leadership is “considering as many as six measures to curb abortion rights.”

Jewish law

The next major congressional battle on the issue is expected to be fought over a proposed ban on a procedure opponents call partial-birth abortion, a method in which an unborn child is partially extracted from the womb feet-first before it is killed.

In a speech in St. Louis yesterday, President Bush promised to sign legislation banning partial-birth abortion, calling it “an abhorrent procedure that offends human dignity.” Senate Republicans have said they would raise the issue as early as next month.

Vermont’s Dean, a physician, criticized abortion opponents for using the term “partial-birth abortion,” which he called a “code word” intended to divide Americans “by conscience.”

Leaders of Lieberman’s Orthodox Jewish stream of Judaism contend his opposition to a partial-birth abortion ban is at odds with halacha, or Jewish law.

When Lieberman was a vice presidential candidate in 2000, Rabbi Isaac Levy, chairman of Jews for Morality in Brooklyn, warned Orthodox Jewish organizations to distance themselves from the senator. The rabbi insisted that all Orthodox Jewish authorities consider partial-birth abortion to be murder.

In an interview with Larry King during the 2000 campaign, Lieberman said that according to Judaism, abortion is “a matter of personal judgment. And like everything else in Judaism, ultimately, it’s up to each of us to decide what we think is right.”

Dean, who noted that he served on the board of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England for five years before becoming governor, said the partial-birth abortion issue has been raised by opponents to appeal to people’s fears.

“We all have our reasons for running,” he said as he opened his brief talk. “I’m running because I don’t like extremism, and I think extremism has taken over our country.”

Dean said that when he last ran for governor, he went over Vermont’s records and found that no third trimester abortions had been done in the previous four years.

“This is an issue about nothing,” he said to rising applause. “It’s an issue about extremism, appealing to people’s fears, and people who use the term partial-birth abortion are leading America to a bad place.”

The Washington Times reported yesterday that two abortion-related provisions have been removed from the Senate omnibus spending bill expected to pass the chamber soon, according to congressional and administration aides.

One provision would prohibit covering abortions in the federal employee health benefits program, except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake. The other would ban the provision of abortions in the federal Bureau of Prisons, except in cases of rape or when the life of the mother is at stake.

‘Chill wind’

At the NARAL event last night, Sen. Edwards – echoing the words of the chief justice in the Roe v. Wade decision, Harry Blackmun – said he felt a “chill wind” blowing from the Republican White House and Congress promoting the notion that “politicians and judges, in their wisdom, are in a better position to make the decision that can so profoundly affect a woman’s life.”

“They are wrong, they are wrong, they are wrong, and we must stop them, and we will stop them,” Edwards said, noting that he is “energized” toward action because of that “chill wind.”

“We can’t leave people like [Attorney General] John Ashcroft in charge of your personal dignity and right to choose,” he insisted.

Referring to the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday, Edwards equated abortion rights with civil rights, asserting “we all have rights that no government can take from us.”

Gephardt’s moral journey

Gephardt, noting that he was raised in a Baptist family and went to college on a church scholarship, told of his “journey” from a leading opponent of abortion in Congress to a defender of abortion rights. In 1977, Gephardt sponsored a resolution to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Abortion was wrong, I was taught,” he related. “There was a moral reason it was illegal.”

The Missouri lawmaker said, however, that “at the beginning of my journey in public service, I didn’t yet realize the full consequences of my positions and beliefs.”

Questions of morality are not always so simple, he said. “There are other moral questions surrounding this issue.”

Gephardt said the greatest teacher is “wisdom gained over time, wisdom gained from personal stories and revelations, from questioning and introspection.”

During his first 10 years in Congress, he said, his “eyes were opened” by colleagues, strangers who told their stories, and members of his family, and “it became clear that morality was not on one side or the other.”

“The first realization was that there was no balance to be found between incest and responsibility or between love and assault,” he said. “You cannot balance these things as if they are on a scale in some fruitless attempt to find what is moral and what is wrong.”

‘This is about human rights’

Sharpton was another speaker who compared the struggle to make abortion legal to the civil rights movement.

“This is not about abortion, this is about human rights, this is about human dignity,” he said. ” … If American is to be America, we must protect women’s rights to choose for themselves.”

Sharpton also called the activists gathered last night to stand firm against violence at family planning clinics.

“We all agree [we] can fight terrorism abroad and here at home,” he said, “but we can’t tolerate terrifying people that want to go to family planning centers right here in the United States.”

Referring to pro-life protesters outside the hotel, Sharpton said “tonight I proudly crossed [a picket] line for the first time.”

Kerry said he would focus on the abortion issue if he became his party’s nominee.

“If I get to share a stage with the president and debate him,” he said, “one of the first things I’ll tell him is, ‘There’s a defining issue between us. I trust women to make their own decisions. You don’t.’”


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