Bill Frist, closet pro-choicer.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 3 2005 5:56 PM

Moral Maturity

Bill Frist, closet pro-choicer.

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Which comes Frist? Pro-life or pro-choice?

Does Bill Frist think unborn human beings have a right to life?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Frist, the Senate majority leader, calls himself pro-life. He has a 100 percent pro-life voting record, according to the National Right to Life Committee. But last week, he asked his colleagues to lift President Bush's restriction on federal funding of human embryonic stem-cell research—a restriction that Bush imposed on the grounds that such research required the destruction of embryos. Why remove Bush's constraints? Because they "slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases," said Frist. What about the embryo? That's up to the family, the senator concluded: "Obviously, any decision about the destiny of an embryo must clearly and ultimately rest with the parents."

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In other words, when it comes to aborting embryos, Frist is pro-choice.

This isn't the first time Frist has espoused the right to choose whether your embryos live or die. Four years ago, he argued for stem-cell research on embryos "which the parents clearly have determined to discard." He insisted that outsiders wait until "the decision has been made independently by both members of a couple to discard embryos remaining in frozen storage at the clinic. Once that decision has been made, the destiny of the embryos is certain." The senator, an accomplished surgeon, explained, "It is similar to the fact that when I do a heart transplant, that heart otherwise would not be used for anything useful. That individual would likely be buried six days later or 10 days later."

Any real pro-lifer would see a glaring difference between the doomed embryo and the doomed organ donor. The donor is doomed by nature; the embryo is doomed by its parents' choice. In transplantation, Frist is accepting nature. In embryo research, he's accepting choice—the choice to consign embryos to research that destroys them. In fact, he's proposing to spend federal funds on research that depends on that choice.

Frist's insistence on choice in this matter isn't a concession. It's central to his thinking. He has underscored it in both of his major speeches on embryo research. In last week's speech, he demanded legislative clarification that parents get "the final say about whether an embryo will be implanted or will be discarded."

It's tempting to dismiss Frist's views on embryos as an aberration from his views on abortion. But if you dig through the public record from his 1994 Senate campaign, you'll find more surprises. In March 1994, Frist told the Nashville Banner that he opposed a constitutional ban on abortions. At the same time, pro-life activists said he was telling them he opposed abortion except in cases of rape or incest. The Banner reported that in public forums, Frist called abortion "a very private decision" and "frequently adds he does not believe abortions should be outlawed." In July, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Frist said, "I believe that abortion is an option that a woman should have."

In September 1994, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that Frist "supports the rights of states to impose restrictions, but thinks the federal government should not." The paper quoted Frist as saying, '"I'll work hard to keep the federal government out of that decision-making process." On Oct. 15, the Frist campaign sent pro-lifers a letter claiming, "Bill Frist will vote to prohibit abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger." The letter was signed by a pro-life politician who was on the Frist campaign's payroll. But in a debate the next day, Frist deflected a question about a constitutional ban on abortion, saying, "I don't think those sorts of decisions need to be decided at those highest levels of federal government."

Paula Wade, a reporter for the Commercial Appeal, pressed Frist to explain his mixed signals. He conceded that he had approved the letter telling pro-lifers he would "vote to prohibit abortion." But he told Wade, "That question will never be voted on by the U.S. Senate, so it was purely hypothetical.'' Wade got Frist to acknowledge that the Senate could vote on such a ban in the form of a constitutional amendment. Frist repeated that he opposed such an amendment. Given that refusal, Wade asked Frist whether his pledge to pro-lifers was misleading. Frist replied, "It's not misleading. That came out of some questionnaires from FLARE (a conservative group) and [the supporter who signed the letter] just lifted that from the questionnaire." Frist told Wade, "Maybe I need to look at the letter again. We wouldn't want to mislead." There's no record of Frist subsequently correcting the letter.

So, how did Frist get that perfect NRLC voting record? By entering the Senate three years after the Supreme Court protected senators from having to vote on abortion's overall legality. Nearly all the votes on the NRLC scorecard involve partial-birth abortion (or PBA) or public funding related to abortions, both of which Frist opposes. You can't necessarily infer that a senator who votes pro-life on those issues thinks abortions in general should be illegal. And many of Frist's comments suggest the opposite.

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