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Democrat presidential hopefuls blast Bush on abortion issue

Dinner marks Roe v. Wade anniversary

Dean, Gephardt, Lieberman, Sharpton and Edwards
Dean, Gephardt, Lieberman, Sharpton and Edwards

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Will Roe v. Wade be overturned during George W. Bush's presidency?


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The six Democrats who have thrown their hats in the ring for the 2004 presidential race gathered Tuesday night to show their support for abortion rights -- the first time the six appeared on the same stage together.

The men attended a dinner marking the 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion. The dinner was hosted by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

At the event, a string of Democrats said the right to have an abortion is under attack and that Americans must fight to keep it legal.

"The president and so many in Congress are preparing a fresh assault on the right to choose, probably the most concerted, aggressive attacks" since the Roe v. Wade decision, said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut.

"The freedom to choose has never been in more peril than it is today," said former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

"Never in my years in the Senate have the rights of women been at such risk," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts.

30 years later

It was January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled that a woman's right to an abortion fell within the right to privacy protected by the 14th Amendment. The decision gave a woman a right to abortion during the entirety of her pregnancy and defined different levels of state interest for regulating abortion in the second and third trimesters.

The court's decision affected laws in 46 states.

Opponents of the landmark decision also marked the anniversary Tuesday. One group demonstrated outside the NARAL event, and another celebrated a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who earlier in the day filed papers launching his presidential campaign, said one of the protesters called to him as he entered the auditorium that "real Christians" don't support abortion rights. He said he responded by telling her "it is time for the Christian Right to meet the right Christians," as well as the "right Jews, the right Buddhists, the right Muslims and the right atheists."

Several of the speakers made promises about how they would lead the fight for abortion rights if elected to the presidency.

Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, said he would seek to pass a federal "Freedom of Choice Act" to protect the right to have an abortion. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said he would veto parental notification for abortions, citing the case of a 12-year-old girl he once met who had been impregnated by her father; Dean said most children bring their parents with them to a clinic voluntarily anyway, thus eliminating the need for a law requiring parental notification.

Sharpton proposed federal standards to govern the rights of minors in seeking abortions, standards that currently vary from state to state. He was also the first speaker to address the ability of the judiciary to uphold or strike down current law.

"Remember how we got Roe v. Wade in the first place," Sharpton said. "We must leave here united not only to fight judges that have questionable backgrounds in race, like [Charles] Pickering, or judges like [Michael] McConnell that are anti-women's right to choose."

'We are not going to turn back the clock'

Kerry, Dean, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Edwards (left to right)
Kerry, Dean, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Edwards (left to right)

Last November, the Senate approved McConnell's nomination to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals over objections by groups favoring abortion rights. President Bush recently renominated Pickering, a Mississippi judge, for the federal appeals court; civil rights groups have criticized Pickering as racially insensitive and questioned his commitment to civil rights.

"We are not going to turn back the clock," said Kerry. "There is no overturning of Roe v. Wade, there is no packing of the courts with judges who will be hostile to choice."

Gephardt was open about his former views opposing abortion, saying he was raised that way and did not realize the consequences of his beliefs until much later. He said he learned over time that those views were wrong.

Sharpton said that as the United States fights terrorism abroad it must also fight "terrifying people" who promote violence at clinics that provide abortions.

"We are the real patriots, because we believe in freedom for all Americans," Sharpton bellowed.

Dean was the most vocal about violence at clinics, even accusing members of the Bush administration of supporting it by not speaking out against it.

"There are many good people who, on moral grounds, are opposed to abortion. I respect them," Dean said. "I do not respect the people who defend the throwing of bombs and murders of doctors, however, and some of those exist in our very administration."

Without naming him, Dean said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee last year, refused to allow a banking bill to go through because it outlawed "terrorism" at abortion clinics.

"They thought it would be better for their political careers if they didn't say too much about it," Dean said.

'Specter of life and death'

While advocating abortion rights, the speakers made clear they must still work to ensure fewer women reach a point where they consider having an abortion.

"Any time the specter of life and death is raised," Gephardt said, "it is a warning that we must tread with great care."

Ironically, as the five other men sat behind him on the stage, Kerry said it is "beyond my comprehension" how "a bunch of men in the White House and in the Congress" can interfere with an issue so personal to women. But the issue of abortion revolves around the basic tenets on which the country was founded, he said.

"I think it respects America's fundamental fabric of justice and honors the notion that we don't impose our individual articles of faith on anyone else," he said.

"I trust women to make their own decisions, and you don't, Mr. President," Kerry said. "That is the difference between us."

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