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Baby on Board

The baby in question was Bridget McCain, who the couple adopted from Bangladesh in 1993. Cindy McCain met Bridget, who was born with a cleft palate, on a trip to Mother Theresa's orphanage. Though reticent to discuss his family life, Senator McCain has said about Bridget, "She has enriched our lives. She's a wonderful child, a complete part of our family, and we love her." In October, The New York Times reported that Bridget only learned of the unfortunate role she had played in the 2000 campaign after Googling her own name in 2006. Now 16, she reportedly asked her father’s advisers to assure her that this time around, the race would be cleaner.

But this year, it's the McCain campaign itself using Bridget as a political football. The campaign blanketed the state last week with a mailer depicting Cindy McCain with baby Bridget in her arms, standing beside a beaming Bangladeshi nun. "Cindy cradles little Bridget, a baby she and John adopted in 1993 from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh," it reads. "Bridget has been a great blessing to the McCain family. Today, Cindy and John work together to promote adoption and to help women facing crisis pregnancies."

At first glance, this might seem like a straight-forward ploy to tug at the heartstrings of conservative voters. Obviously, the mailer implicitly reaches out to those voters who may have been poisoned by the racially-tinged attacks of 2000: McCain's dark-skinned child, it confirms, has a "legitimate" pedigree. But in addition to all that, the language of the mailer contains several phrases that play into the ugliest rhetorical practices of the pro-life movement. Bridget has become part of a concerted strategy to convince religious voters that McCain, contrary to what they may have heard, is a steadfast ally on abortion.

When he ran for president in 2000, McCain had a dreadful relationship with the evangelical wing of the Republican Party, which had united around the candidacy of George W. Bush. Though McCain’s voting record was largely pro-life, he repeatedly opposed the immediate repeal of Roe v. Wade on the grounds that making abortion illegal nationwide would result in many women undergoing life-threatening back-alley abortions. In an anti-McCain memo released during the campaign, Douglas Johnson, then legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, fumed, “McCain embraced the ‘necessary evil’ thinking of the pro-abortion movement.”

The same memo called McCain to task for his support of campaign finance reform, which limited the ability of anti-abortion rights groups to air attack ads. And pro-lifers were intensely skeptical of McCain’s affectionate relationship with socially liberal journalists, as well as his courtship of Independents and Democrats. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote “McCain’s people whisper, Don’t worry. He's not really so anti-abortion. He'll come around on gay rights, gun control and almost anything else you can name. He's a reasonable man--big-hearted, too.”

This election, as he has reached out to suspicious evangelicals, McCain has made a 180-degree turn. Though he continues to support stem cell research and the right to an abortion for victims of rape and incest, positions that put him at odds with pro-life orthodoxy, McCain Version 2.0 calls for the immediate repeal of Roe. “It should be overturned,” he said in South Carolina last year when he kicked off his campaign, a mantra he has repeated ever since. In the final days of the South Carolina race, anti-abortion rhetoric has become a key closing message. On Wednesday, the campaign trotted out the endorsement of Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a doctor and noted voice against abortion rights, who in 2000 said he favored the death penalty for physicians who perform abortions. “For 24 years, John McCain has been an unwavering voice in Congress for the rights of the unborn,” Coburn said in a McCain campaign press release.

Last week’s baby-themed McCain mailer is a striking illustration of how the senator is now openly embracing the symbols and code words of the religious right, a movement he once openly derided. The mailer refers to "helping women who face crisis pregnancies": Crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) are a key component of anti-choice activism. There are thousands of centers nationwide, and about 50 of them have received over $30 million in federal funds. Often, CPCs rent out buildings once inhabited by Planned Parenthood clinics or other comprehensive reproductive health care providers. As documented by Congressman Henry Waxman, they'll hang a sign on the door that imitates the former clinic's logo, but will offer potential clients such medically false claims as abortion causes breast cancer, increases women's suicide rate, and decreases future fertility.

An idealized picture of adoption--like the one presented in McCain’s South Carolina mailer--is also a key ingredient of the brew crisis pregnancy centers serve up. Women are told that a loving family awaits their baby, regardless of the child’s race or ethnicity. But in reality, while 34 percent of children in foster care are black, only 16 percent of adopted kids under the age of 18 are black. More black children await adoption each year than are actually adopted.

The pro-life movement's willful ignorance of the complexities of the adoption process suits the ends to which it promotes the practice—solely as an antidote to abortion. Mother Theresa, for example, viewed her celebrated orphanages primarily as a way to "combat abortion and contraception." For Theresa, abortion was "the greatest destroyer of peace today." In her reductive ideology, eradicating abortion was the central component of social outreach to the developing world.

McCain has embraced that same ideology through his support of the Bush administration’s “Global Gag Rule,” which prevents U.S. aid from supporting international family planning programs that provide--or even mention--contraception and abortion. At a Spartanburg, S.C., campaign stop Thursday, McCain emphasized his advocacy for the international unborn, “from Burma to Uzbekistan, from China to places in the Caribbean."

It's easy enough to imagine a "Meet the McCain Family" mailer that could have strategically responded to the rumors of Bridget's illegitimacy (Meet Bridget! She's adopted from Mother Theresa's orphanage!) while simultaneously introducing voters to McCain's two sons serving in the military and daughter who blogs from the campaign trail. Instead, the Bridget McCain mailer signals the full transformation of the John McCain of 2000 into the John McCain of 2008, a candidate with few qualms about flip-flopping to please the religious right. McCain once famously called Jerry Falwell an "agent of intolerance." But today's McCain embraces a hard-right stance on abortion to woo the single-issue, evangelical Christian electorate away from Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson in South Carolina. And today’s McCain will use his daughter Bridget, already so cruelly treated by politics, to do so.

Dana Goldstein is a writing fellow at The American Prospect.

By Dana Goldstein