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Confusion abounds over pro-life pledge

Over the weekend, the Susan B. Anthony List, a stalwart in the pro-life movement, caused quite a lot of confusion over its anti-abortion pledge, which all of the GOP's presidential candidates except Herman Cain and Mitt Romney signed.

Among other stipulations, the pledge asked that, if elected, candidates would promise to:

"Select pro-life appointees for relevant Cabinet and executive branch positions, in particular the head of National Institutes of Health, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Advance pro-life legislation to permanently end all taxpayer funding of abortion in all domestic and international spending programs, and defund Planned Parenthood and all other contractors and recipients of federal funds with affiliates that perform or fund abortions."

In response, Romney put out his own pledge, explaining his objections to the group's language:

"I am pro-life and believe that abortion should be limited to only instances of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. . . .

"As much as I share the goals of the Susan B. Anthony List, its well-meaning pledge is overly broad and would have unintended consequences. That is why I could not sign it. It is one thing to end federal funding for an organization like Planned Parenthood; it is entirely another to end all federal funding for thousands of hospitals across America. That is precisely what the pledge would demand and require of a president who signed it."

The Susan B. Anthony List pounced, issuing a statement condemning only Romney. It read in part, "Gov. Romney refused to take the pledge, and his explanation raises more questions than answers. In good conscience, we cannot let this rest."

On Sunday, SBA seemed to be at pains to play down any conflict with Romney. SBA spokesman Billy Valentine e-mailed me: "Defunding hospitals has never been considered by Congress, is not part of public debate and is not part of the pledge. Ninety-five percent of abortions are performed outside of hospitals. We made this clear to the Romney campaign."

SBA president Marjorie Dannenfelser then e-mailed, saying that she had spoken with the Romney campaign to try to clarify the pledge. She denied that there was any attempt to damage Romney and stated, "Romney has been an ally of mine/ours since the last election. His not signing came after a sincere effort to clarify intent and convince him to sign."

The Romney campaign declined to comment further. I can imagine that the last thing the campaign wants to do is gin up a fight with a group that's already caused a stir. However, the points raised by Romney (its overbroadness on providers and its impact on executive branch appointees) remain in the pledge. It is baffling that SBA, if it intended to qualify and limit the pledge, didn't redraft and recirculate it. What is the point of a pledge that says one thing but is interpreted privately in a different way?

This is one jumbo example of why these pledges should be dropped in the wastebasket rather than candidates' laps. What a mess.