W A S H I N G T O N, Jan. 19, 2001 -- On the eve of her move to the White House, first lady-in-waiting Laura Bush walked into a political minefield by saying the law legalizing abortion should not be overturned.
Asked on NBC's Today show if Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court's 1973 decision that recognized a woman's right to legalized abortion, should be overturned, Mrs. Bush said flatly, "No. I don't think it should be overturned."
Mrs. Bush said she favors measures that reduce the need for abortion, including abstinence education for young people "everywhere."
"I think that we should do what we can … to try to reduce the number of abortions in a lot of ways, and that is by talking about responsibility with girls and boys, by teaching abstinence, having abstinence classes everywhere in schools and in churches and in Sunday school," Mrs. Bush said in the Thursday interview. "I think there are a lot of ways we can reduce the number of abortions and I agree with my husband in that — on that issue."
President-elect Bush opposes abortion but has said he doesn't believe the nation is ready for Roe vs. Wade to be reversed. But asked Thursday in an interview with FOX News if he would rule out supporting a challenge to the ruling, Bush answered: "Not at all. We'd just have to see."
"I campaigned as a pro-life candidate," Bush also said. "I understand people disagree on this issue, but I think that it is very important for us to be conscious of the value of life."
The president-elect has said repeatedly that his judicial appointments would not be required to meet a "litmus test" on the abortion issue, but he has vowed to appoint only "strict constructionist" judges to the nation's highest court, citing conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as model justices.
"I am going to put judges on the bench who will strictly interpret the Constitution," he said Thursday.
The incoming chief executive also supports a ban on late-term abortions and would require doctors to notify parents before performing abortions on teenagers.
'Pro-Lifers' Call Comments 'Upsetting'
Mrs. Bush's remarks Thursday — her most explicit to date on the controversial issue — caught leading members of the anti-abortion rights community off-guard, leading many to now question her husband's commitment to their cause.
"[Mrs. Bush's statement] is not very helpful," said Nellie Gray, president of the March for Life Fund. "I would have thought that if she didn't want to have Roe vs. Wade overturned, she would have made it clear somewhere along the way on the campaign trail."
"It would have been very helpful if … she would have said she would not join in being a truly pro-life advocate," Gray added.
"Millions of pro-life people were led to believe … that George Bush was more pro-life than he said he was," said Colleen Parro of the Republican National Coalition for Life. "The fact that Mrs. Bush spoke her mind … should be upsetting to them — to everybody who supported George Bush thinking that he was pro-life."
Bush transition spokesman Ari Fleischer declined to comment on Mrs. Bush's remarks.
"I don't discuss the personal views of the president's family," he said at a news conference in Washington this afternoon.
Ashcroft Remarks Also at Issue
The man Bush has tapped to head up the Justice Department, former Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft, is a staunch opponent of abortion. But under intense questioning from Democrats at his Senate confirmation hearings this week, the attorney general-designate promised to enforce Roe vs. Wade, calling it "settled law."
"I believe Roe vs. Wade … was wrongly decided," Ashcroft said Tuesday in his testimony the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I am personally opposed to abortion. But … I well understand that the role of attorney general is to enforce the law as it is, not as I would have it."
Bush's nomination of the staunchly conservative Ashcroft was viewed as a victory for anti-abortion rights advocates, but his recent comments, like Mrs. Bush's, are giving some of them pause.
"If the sentiment is that abortion is a settled law of the land and should remain so and it is no big deal … I absolutely expect [pro-life leaders] to take him on," said one prominent social conservative who asked not to be named. "At some point pro-life Americans will want to see pro-life things happening."
"People are expecting something to happen on Roe," the conservative leader added. "It will not go quietly into that good night, so to speak."
ABCNEWS' Gayle Tzemach contributed to this report.