WASHINGTON – Republican contenders for the White House are finding themselves on the defensive over their stances — and shifts — on abortion as each tries to convince social conservatives he is the best candidate for the GOP presidential nomination.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Monday questioned why Republicans are always the ones whose motives are questioned when they move from support for abortion rights to opposition to abortion.
Romney acknowledges that he once backed the right for women to end their pregnancies. In a debate last week, he said when he was running for governor he upheld the law protective of abortion rights despite becoming opposed to it while in office.
"You don't have to take my word for it. You can look at what I did as governor, and as governor, I came down on the side of life. On every piece of legislation that came my way, I was on the side of life," Romney told FOX News.
Romney also called criticism of his change of heart over abortion unfair. He said that he changed his mind from being supportive of abortion rights to against them over the issue of embryonic cloning.
"What I find interesting is had I been pro-life and then changed to pro-choice no one would ask the question," Romney said. "If you go the other direction, as I have and as Ronald Reagan did and (former Illinois Rep.) Henry Hyde and George Herbert Walker Bush, it's like the media can't get enough of 'how, why did you change?'"
Romney said the debate over Roe v. Wade has led to a "devaluation of human rights."
"It had led to a point where people were beginning to say now we're going to start cloning embryos. Wait a second. This really is going too far," he said.
Romney is not the only candidate facing turmoil over the abortion issue. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has staked out an abortion rights position — a potential political liability for the primary season when the conservative vote is more decisive. On Monday, fellow GOP contender Arizona Sen. John McCain appeared to to be trying to put some political distance between himself and Giuliani, one of his main rivals.
Speaking with The Associated Press, McCain said he believes Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, should be overturned. He linked conservative voters with a strong stance against abortion, saying it would be a long-shot for a Republican candidate to win a primary otherwise.
"I think anything is possible, but I don't think it would be real easy," McCain said.
"I think it's one of the fundamental principles of a conservative to have respect and commitment to the dignity of human life, both the born and unborn. ... It makes it tough because the Republican Party is basically composed to a significant degree by people who are pro-choice, just as the Democratic Party has pro-life candidates."
Giuliani says he supports "reasonable restrictions" on abortion, including parental notification, but with a judicial bypass. He supports the ban on partial birth abortions, affirmed last month by the Supreme Court.
According to federal tax records — reported Tuesday by The Politico — Giuliani and his ex-wife, Donna Hanover, gave a total of $900 to Planned Parenthood, a major abortion-rights advocacy group that also runs abortion clinics.
Appearing on the Laura Ingraham radio show Tuesday, Giuliani defended the donations, saying "Planned Parenthood makes information available. It's consistent with my position."
"I disagree with [abortion]. I think it's wrong. I think there should be a choice. If there's going to be a choice, there are organizations that are going to give people information about that choice. I just as strongly support the idea that a woman should have information about adoption at that time," Giuliani said.
At last week's debate, Giuliani gave a noncommittal answer to whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned, saying it would be OK if it were overturned, but also OK if it were not. Giuliani also often points to successful efforts to bolster adoption rates while he was mayor.
The abortion debate has also drawn in a potential entrant into the 2008 race. Former Sen. Fred Thompson could face a potential hurdle in his decision to run after Project Vote Smart this week posted Thompson's responses for his 1994 Senate bid, in which he said he supported legal abortion in the first trimester in all cases.
According to the responses at the time, Thompson also said he believed there should be parental notification for mothers under the age of 18 who are seeking abortions; he supported state-imposed waiting periods and opposed federal funding for clinics that provide abortions. He also said abortions should not be covered under federal health care plans, and states, rather than Congress, should control abortion laws.
Once in the Senate, however, Thompson's voting record fell in line with abortion opponents.
McCain also may have opened some doors for criticism with his responses to the 2004 Project Vote Smart questionnaire. While stating his opposition to partial birth abortions, McCain said abortions should be legal in the case of incest or rape or when the life of the mother is in danger. He also said that abortion providers and advocacy organizations should not get federal funding.
FOX News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.