Bill Frist, closet pro-choicer.

Bill Frist, closet pro-choicer.

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."

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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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In 1995, when Frist delivered his first speech on PBA, he said the issue "goes beyond the debates of pro-life and pro-choice." Two years later, he stipulated, "Partial-birth abortions cannot and should not be categorized with other medical procedures or even other abortions." In 1998, he said, "This is not a debate about pro-life or pro-choice or abortion to me in any way. Because of the way the bill is written, it focuses very narrowly on a specific procedure that is unnecessary."

Frist didn't renounce his previously stated inclination to "keep the federal government out of that decision-making process." In fact, he repeated it. "A lot of my medical colleagues, they rightly fear the government coming in and trying to control everything that they do," he observed during the 1995 PBA debate. A year later, on the same topic, he said, "I too have a fear of excessive federal government intervention into that practice of medicine." In 2003, he added, "Most people in life don't like government intruding into their lives. And that doctor-patient relationship being as special as it is, you don't want government coming in and saying, 'Yes, no, come in with that procedure.' I feel the same way, generally." Frist always framed PBA as an exception to this rule and emphasized the availability of alternative abortion methods.

Last year, when the Senate debated the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which made it a federal offense to injure or kill a fetus during a violent crime, Frist inserted the same caveats. "It is not about abortion," he told his colleagues. "It doesn't undermine the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision."

Frist's closest brush with a clear vote against legal abortion came on Oct. 21, 1999, when he opposed an amendment endorsing Roe. First he voted to table the amendment. The amendment survived, and minutes later, Frist voted to kill it. He could have let the two votes stand, leaving the impression that he thought abortions should generally be illegal. Instead, he stood up during the intervening minutes to explain himself:

Does [the PBA ban] mean the Congress is going to come in and take another procedure, and another procedure, to accomplish a goal with some hidden agenda of eliminating all abortions for everybody under all circumstances at a certain point in life? It is not.[T]he great fear is that you take this procedure, and the Congress will come back a year from now, or two years from now or three years from now, and ban other very specific procedures. I struggled with this a great deal, because I do not want to see the federal government coming in to that decision-making capacity.

What's going on in this man's head? First he says abortion is an option women should have. Then he votes to ban PBA. Then he votes against Roe. Then he says he doesn't want the federal government meddling in abortion decisions generally. Then he endorses embryo-destructive research. Can any principle make sense of these positions?

Maybe so. Read Frist's closing remarks on Oct. 21, 2003, moments before the Senate voted for the last time on PBA. "In destroying the body of a mature unborn child, we are alienating that child from his or her most essential right; and that is, the right to life," said Frist. "In doing so, we are violating the very premise of our Republic: that our rights are enduring gifts of God, not privileges to be revoked by human whim."

In all of Frist's years in the Senate, this is the only time he speaks of a "right to life" during a discussion of abortion legislation. But he doesn't attribute this right to all unborn children. He attributes it to those that are "mature." Maybe, in his view, a fetus that has matured to the point of a PBA has earned that right. Maybe he objects to Roe because he thinks the same is true of late second-trimester fetuses—or maybe he just thinks states should be allowed to ban most abortions, though he personally wouldn't. Either way, it's clear from his speeches on stem-cell research that he doesn't think embryos have matured enough. His policy would leave embryos to what he calls, in the abortion context, "human whim." And the government would pay for the use of their remains.

All of which leads to the question: At what point does Frist think the embryo acquires a right to life? In 1997, he voted to ban federal funding of research involving fetal tissue  derived from abortions. Four years later, and again last week, he took the opposite position on early embryos. He voted for the federal PBA ban but opposes a federal ban on earlier abortions generally. At some point along the continuum of development, Frist stops thinking like a pro-choicer and starts thinking like a pro-lifer. When? And why?