Gore Can't Get His Story Straight on 1984 Vote to Define Unborn Children As "Persons" From Conception

By Douglas Johnson, NRLC Legislative Director

WASHINGTON -- I remember reading something about a renowned Texas criminal defense lawyer named Richard "Racehorse" Haynes. Haynes explained how, in defending a client against a criminal charge, he never relied on just a single defense argument. Haynes' explanation of his method went something like this:

"Let's say that your neighbor sues you, claiming that your dog bit him at such-and-such a time and place. I will place three arguments before the jury, as follows: Number one, my client's dog doesn't bite. Number two, my client and his dog were seen at a far-distant event on the day of the alleged bite. And, number three . . . my client doesn't have a dog!"

Vice President Al Gore has followed a somewhat similar pattern in responding to periodic "charges" that he voted, in 1984, to amend a federal civil rights bill so that the term "person" would " include unborn children from the moment of conception." In responding to this allegation in 1988, 1992, and 1999, Gore has offered three different and conflicting explanations of his vote each of them false.

The basic facts are documented beyond dispute. On June 26, 1984, the U.S. House of Representatives was considering the Civil Rights Act of 1984, a bill to expand the reach of key provisions of four previously enacted federal civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Pro-life Congressman Mark Siljander (R-Mi.) offered a one-sentence amendment to revise the bill's definition of the key term "person."

The Siljander Amendment read, in its entirety, "For the purposes of this Act, the term 'person' shall include unborn children from the moment of conception."

The House conducted a straight up-and-down vote on the Siljander Amendment which failed, 186-219. Al Gore then the congressman representing Tennessee's Sixth Congressional Districtvoted in favor of the amendment.

That vote is recorded on page H-7051 of the Congressional Record for June 26, 1984. (House roll call no. 269.) It is also recorded on page 77-H of the 1984 Congressional Quarterly Almanac, a reference work available at many libraries (CQ roll call no. 242).

By 1988, Gore was a senator who was voting consistently pro- abortion, running for the first time for the Democratic presidential nomination. Appearing as a guest on NBC-TV's Meet the Press on February 21, 1988, journalist Fred Barnes asked Gore, "Didn't you vote back in 1984 to set when one becomes a person at the time of conception, which would hav,e in effect, made abortion illegal?"

Gore responded, "No. No. I did not."

One might read Gore's flat denial that he had ever cast a vote to set "personhood" at conception as equivalent to an immediate resort to Racehorse Haynes's ultimate line of defense "my client doesn't have a dog." Two weeks later (March 7, 1988), U.S. News and World Report chief political correspondent Michael Kramer published a column in which he shed some light on Gore's defense strategy:

"'Since there's a record of that vote, we only have one choice," concedes a Gore adviser anonymously. 'In effect, what we have to do is deny, deny, deny. . . . We've muddled the point,' says the Gore advisor, 'and with luck, attention will turn elsewhere or at least we'll be lucky enough so the thing doesn't blow into a full-fledged problem before Super Tuesday.'" ("Super Tuesday" re- ferred to a then-imminent date on which a number of southern states were holding their presidential primaries.) Attention did indeed turn elsewhere as Gore's campaign faltered. With the exception of Kramer's column, the media did not pursue the question of Gore's vote for the "personhood" amendment.

On September 6, 1992, Gore - - now Bill Clinton's vice- presidential running mate - - appeared again on NBC's Meet the Press. Host Tim Russert reopened the issue, saying, "In 1984 you voted for a law which would define the fetus as a person from the moment of conception."

Gore immediately interrupted this time not simply to deny the vote, but to interpret it.

"Now, there's a misunderstanding about that," Gore said. "That was not what that [amendment] dealt with; that was a measure related to public hospitals and procedures in the third trimester."

But Russert persisted, pointing out, "This would amend the Civil Rights Act to include 'unborn children from the moment of conception' as persons."

Gore responded, "Well, first of all, again, that was in the context of U.S. government-funded public hospitals for abortions in the third trimester. I think it's completely consistent with the Roe v. Wade concept, which says there's a difference between the first, second, and third trimester."

But this explanation was misleading. The Siljander Amendment was only one sentence long, as quoted above, and it specifically said "from the moment of conception."

Congressman Siljander did say, in House floor debate, that an effect of his amendment would be "to deny Federal funds to any institution performing abortions." Moreover, he focused some of his remarks on late-term abortions performed in federally funded hospitals. But Siljander did not say anything to support Gore's claim that the scope of the amendment was limited to unborn children in the "third trimester," an interpretation that is flatly contradicted by the amendment itself.

Recently, Gore was again asked about the Siljander Amendment, this time by journalist Cokie Roberts on ABC's This Week, on October 31, 1999.

Roberts put the question this way: "Back in July [actually June] of 1984, when you were in the House of Representatives, you voted for an amendment that would put 'unborn children from the moment of conception' as persons under the Civil Rights Act, to be protected under the Civil Rights Act. Would you vote that way today?"

Gore responded, "First of all, that was a procedural vote in the House. And I've always supported Roe v. Wade, Cokie."

Gore's new explanation, like the earlier two, was false. There was nothing at all "procedural" about the vote on the Siljander Amendment. The House simply voted up-or-down on whether to adopt the amendment, and Gore voted yes.

The question arises: why has Gore thought it necessary to make such persistent efforts to deny his "fetal personhood" vote? Why doesn't he simply admit that he cast the vote, and explain that he later changed his position?

Perhaps it is because Gore knows that, if he admits that he once voted to recognize "unborn children from the moment of conception" as legal "persons," it would become more difficult for him to freely attack as "extremist" other political candidates who advocate legal protection for unborn children. Such attacks would, after all, invite the question, "And on what date did you, Mr. Gore, stop being an 'extremist'?"