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Rehnquist illness propels social issues back to campaign agenda
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Over the weekend, Planned Parenthood kicked off a get-out-the-vote effort to try to get supporters of legalized abortion to the polls. About a dozen Planned Parenthood volunteers held signs as they stood out in the rain in the Uptown area of Minneapolis. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The presidential campaign has largely focused on the economy, homeland security and Iraq, with little attention paid to social issues. Neither President George W. Bush nor Sen. John Kerry spends much time talking about either abortion or same-sex marriage in speeches. But the next president is likely to appoint at least one member to an aging Supreme Court that's divided on abortion, gay rights and other issues. There hasn't been a Supreme Court vacancy in 10 years, and this week's announcement that Chief Justice William Rehnquist has thyroid cancer gives new prominence to the question.

St. Paul, Minn. — Though he rarely refers to abortion or same-sex marriage directly, near the end of every campaign speech, President Bush uses the same language to allude to his positions on those issues.

"We stand for a culture of life, in which every person matters and every being counts. We stand for marriage and family, which are the foundations of our society," Bush says.

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Image Scott Fischbach

Bush also promises to appoint judges who will interpret the Constitution without legislating from the bench. That's what opponents of legalized abortion want to hear, according to Scott Fischbach, executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life.

"Clearly, when you look at the text and the history of our Constitution, the word abortion is not mentioned," Fischbach says.

Fischbach says that doesn't necessarily mean judges appointed by Bush would vote to overturn Roe versus Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. He says it's impossible to predict what the Supreme Court would do, but Fischbach does say he believes Roe versus Wade was wrongly decided.

John Kerry, on the other hand, says he would appoint Supreme Court judges who support Roe versus Wade. But Kerry doesn't bring up the issue in his stump speeches.

Tina Smith, vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, says there's no question that Kerry supports abortion rights. She also believes it's clear how Bush-appointed judges would view the issue.

"Really all you need to do is to look at the record of the judges that he has appointed over the last four years, and there would be no doubt in your mind that he does have a strict idea of who would appoint to the Supreme Court, and he would not appoint people who would uphold Roe versus Wade," Kerry says.

This year, for the first time, Planned Parenthood's Action Fund endorsed a presidential candidate, putting its support behind Kerry. Over the weekend, Planned Parenthood kicked off a get-out-the-vote effort to try to get supporters of legalized abortion to the polls.

About a dozen Planned Parenthood volunteers held signs as they stood out in the rain in the Uptown area of Minneapolis.

Supporters of legalized abortion acknowledge that their efforts to mobilize voters have traditionally lagged behind the better-organized Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. But they say this year, they've expanded their reach, using phone banks, emails, door knocking and cable TV ads to reach voters.

MCCL officials say they're building on their past successes with an online campaign, 55 information meetings around the state and a new statewide radio ad.

"George W. Bush is fighting to end partial birth abortion. Well, we finally know one thing John Kerry stands for: partial birth abortion, and that's one reason I'm voting for George W. Bush," the ad says.

Bush signed into law a bill banning the late-term practice opponents refer to as partial birth abortion, while Kerry voted against the bill. The law has been challenged, and could end up before the Supreme Court.

It's also possible that the issue of same-sex marriage will end up before the high court. Both Bush and Kerry say they oppose same-sex marriage, but only Bush backs a federal constitutional amendment banning it. Kerry says the matter should be left to the states. He said in the last presidential debate that he supports certain rights for same-sex couples.

"You can't disallow someone the right to visit their partner in a hospital. You have to allow people to transfer property, which is why I'm for partnership rights and so forth," Kerry says.

A group called Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage has bought billboards around the state that show two men kissing and say "Want Gay Marriage? Vote Democrat this November." The group is focusing its efforts on legislative candidates, although its Web site points out that Kerry was one of 14 senators who voted against the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

Groups such as Outfront Minnesota that are opposed to a consitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage are focusing their efforts on state races, not the presidential campaign.

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