John Edwards

(WOMENSENEWS)–When John Kerry, the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, named John Edwards as his running mate on Tuesday, he further strengthened what looks to be a rock-solid pro-choice platform.

However, as the presidential candidates continue to slam one another in the months leading up to the election, Edwards will no doubt be subject to intense critical pressures. Opponents are already attacking his lack of experience in politics–he served just one term in office before making a run for the presidency. They are also taking aim at his and Kerry’s vote against funding for the war in Iraq last October.

However, Edwards’ pro-choice voting record, combined with a commendable record on other issues of particular concern to women–such as expanded health coverage of female-specific problems and initiatives to combat wage discrimination–has gotten some women all fired up about the boyish, 51-year-old senator from North Carolina.

“Edwards is a member of a new generation of Southern politicians who have a strong record of standing up for women,” said Felicity Maxwell of New York, a co-founder, along with Jill Garrison of Oklahoma, of the grassroots Women for Edwards Web site. “There’s really a lot of substance underneath that movie-star quality of his.”

Edwards, 51, who made his name as a prominent trial lawyer before being elected to the Senate in 1998, voted no on important pieces of legislation restricting access to abortion. These include a bill to maintain a ban on abortions on military bases, a bill to block overseas military abortions and the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban that came before the Senate in 1999.

Since 1999, he has cast 20 votes on the family-planning issues, and all of those votes have been pro-choice, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Though his official Senate Web site makes no mention of his stance on abortion, Edwards has expressed his views clearly on his official presidential campaign Web site and in his public speeches.

“The right to choose is an essential ingredient to realize the full equality of America,” Edwards said during a speech at a NARAL Pro-Choice America dinner on Jan. 21, 2003. He told attendees he would “help lead a fight to pass a federal Freedom of Choice Act so that your right to choose is guaranteed and protected no matter what the court does.”

Opposes Abortion Ban

On the MSNBC program Hardball with Chris Matthews in October, Edwards stood behind his opposition to the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act.

“I do not support a ban on late term abortions that does not have an exception for the health of the mother,” he said. Neither Edwards nor Kerry took time out from their primary campaigns to participate in the most recent vote on the ban last March. (The ban, now being challenged in federal courts, bars most abortions past 12 weeks.)

Beyond reproductive rights, Edwards has worked on numerous women’s health and workplace initiatives.

As part of his campaign for a patients’ bill of rights, he co-authored a bill that would require health insurance plans to provide coverage for in-patient hospital care after any mastectomy, lumpectomy or lymph node dissection. He also introduced the Women in Trauma Act in 2002, which would focus new federal efforts on improving mental health and substance abuse services available to victims of domestic or sexual violence. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which he co-sponsored in 2003, would strengthen the penalties against employers who deny women equal pay for equal work.

Praise from Planned Parenthood

Following Kerry’s announcement that Edwards would be his running mate, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the political arm of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, praised the match.

“In stark contrast to the current administration, a Kerry-Edwards administration will stand up for the fundamental rights of women both in the United States and around the world and will ensure that women’s health is a centerpiece of its agenda,” said the fund’s president, Gloria Feldt.

The fund’s endorsement of John Kerry in April marked the first time in the nonpartisan organization’s history that it endorsed a presidential candidate.

At the endorsement ceremony Feldt referred to what she called “the Bush administration’s war on choice,” and said it was time for the fund to bring its “strength with critically important voting blocs to bear at a point in history when reproductive rights are most threatened.”

Despite Edwards’ currently immense personal wealth, many female supporters also like his humble roots and his track record of taking on hospitals and major corporations as a personal injury lawyer.

“He has a long history of looking out for the little guy,” said Maxwell, of the Women for Edwards Web site. “That’s given him an understanding of what women sometimes face being mistreated in health situations.”

Top Choice for Kerry Ticket

Supporters, however, hope that Edwards will energize the Democratic campaign and attract pro-choice voters, male and female. “This is really going to help mobilize voters and bring more people into the political process,” said Betsy Cavendish, interim president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

At the same time, the fact that Kerry and Edwards have strong pro-choice records may cause the Republican leadership to soften its abstinence-only, anti-abortion stance in an effort to attract more moderate voters, making this a very different race than in 2000 when women’s health issues were barely mentioned.

Robin Hindery is a recent graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and a writer for Women’s eNews in New York City.

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