Key antiabortion group supports Thompson

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Times Staff Writer

Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson has won the support of a major antiabortion group, but the endorsement is drawing ridicule and anger from others in the movement, underscoring deep divisions on the religious right.

The political arm of the National Right to Life Committee is scheduled to endorse Thompson this morning. Executive Director David O’Steen predicted Monday that the announcement would prompt “pro-life people across the nation to coalesce” behind the former senator from Tennessee, who is lagging in the polls in early primary states.

But Thompson is far from a consensus choice.

During his Senate career, he consistently voted the antiabortion position. But he once worked briefly as a lobbyist for a liberal group that sought to relax restrictions on abortion. In an early political race, he indicated support for legal abortion throughout the first trimester.


And most recently, he said he would not back a constitutional amendment criminalizing abortion -- a plank of the Republican platform for more than a quarter-century. Thompson said he would leave each state to make its own abortion laws.

“That’s what freedom is all about,” he told Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“He’s saying that states can allow the killing of the unborn. That’s not acceptable,” said Jim Sedlak, an antiabortion activist from Virginia.

“It seems to indicate that he’s not truly pro-life,” said Troy Newman, a Kansas antiabortion activist.

National Right to Life board members would not comment Monday on their decision.

With 3,000 local chapters in 50 states, National Right to Life is the nation’s largest antiabortion group; it publishes a monthly newsletter, funds radio and TV broadcasts and organizes local activists. Supporters donated more than $9.7 million in 2005, according to the latest available tax records. The group’s political arm spent $4.4 million in the 2004 election cycle to support antiabortion candidates and causes.

Though the group has a broad reach, it is not clear how much influence its endorsement will have. Leading social conservatives have been divided this election, so each major Republican candidate can claim some level of endorsement -- but no one has a clear-cut edge.

Televangelist Pat Robertson recently endorsed former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who supports abortion rights. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a well-respected conservative, backs Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who opposes abortion but has not made that a priority during his career.


And the general counsel for National Right to Life, James Bopp Jr., is working for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who once supported abortion rights but now backs a constitutional ban.

“Pro-lifers are not behaving in a monolithic way,” said Jill Stanek, a prominent antiabortion columnist and blogger. The Thompson endorsement, she said, surprised her as much as Robertson’s nod to Giuliani. “There’s something going on here,” Stanek said, “that’s not normal.”