BEDFORD, N.H. – Democratic presidential contender Wesley Clark (search) said Thursday he supports a woman's right to have an abortion "as modified by" a 1992 court case that allows states to impose limited restrictions.
Clark's comments, at a news conference, marked a far less sweeping position than one he staked out in an interview earlier this month, when he told a New Hampshire newspaper he opposed any legal restriction on abortion at any point during pregnancy.
The retired four-star general spoke with reporters after appearing before a Planned Parenthood-sponsored conference that coincided with the 31st anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling that said the Constitution guaranteed women the right to abortions.
"I have always been and always will be pro-choice," he said.
In earlier comments on abortion, Clark told The Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., that "life begins with the mother's decision."
The paper also quoted him as saying, "I'm not going to get into a discussion of when life begins. I'm in favor of choice, period, pure and simple. ... You don't put the law in there."
At his news conference Thursday, Clark told reporters he didn't intend to be drawn into a discussion of when a fetus became viable.
Asked numerous times about his position on abortion, he said, "I support Roe v. Wade (search) as modified by Casey." The first case he cited was the court's landmark 1973 ruling. The second, settled in 1992, resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that said states could impose certain restrictions on abortions prior to fetal viability, as long as they don't impose an "undue burden" on the woman.
While the first ruling was viewed as a dramatic victory for abortion rights activists, the second case two decades later was more of a mixed verdict, upholding the right to an abortion but paving the way for numerous states to impose limitations.
Clark also said he would sign legislation banning so-called "partial birth" abortions so long as it complied with the two court cases and contained exceptions for the health of the mother.
President Clinton vetoed two bills that lacked health exceptions, and the Supreme Court has ruled no ban is permissible without one. President Bush recently signed legislation that abortion rights groups are challenging in court as unconstitutional.
Abortion rights groups generally oppose attempts in state legislatures to narrow a woman's access to abortion.
Jamal Simmons, a spokesman for Clark, sought to minimize any difference between the position Clark laid out during the day and the one he sketched in the newspaper interview earlier this month.
Simmons said Clark first addressed the issue in an interview with a conservative newspaper editorial board that advocates limitations on abortion, and he "was intending not to engage with them in a conversation on restrictions."
Kate Michelman, head of NARAL Pro-Choice America (search), said she is satisfied Clark "will not only be a pro-choice candidate but will make it an issue in this campaign" against Bush if he wins the nomination.
"I think what the general is saying is that he supports a woman's right to choose as protected by the law," Michelman said. "We're good to go with Gen. Clark."
An aide later called to amend her statement, saying the organization was "good to go with any one of the Democratic candidates."
Clark announced Thursday he was making "all my personal and professional papers" available to the public by posting them on his campaign Web site.
Included, he said, is a list of all paid speaking engagements, the records of the "one company I represented" as a lobbyist with the federal government, and transcripts of testimony before congressional committees on the subject of the Iraq war.
Clark pledged to create a new standard for openness if he wins the White House, and he contrasted his intentions with what he said was a "web of secrecy that President Bush has spent three years spinning."
Clark challenged his Democratic rivals to make their records public as well, saying the nation's leaders "shouldn't have anything to hide." While he mentioned no names, Howard Dean placed some of his Vermont gubernatorial records under seal and has declined to open them.