House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi flashed unusual public anger and caused some confusion Thursday during a news conference when asked about the "moral difference" between late-term elective abortions and the infant deaths that led to murder convictions for Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell.
"You're probably enjoying that question a lot. I can see you savoring it," Pelosi responded in a sarcastic tone to John McCormack, a writer for The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, after he initially posed the question in front of cameras and other reporters.
However, McCormack persisted in pressing for a direct answer.
Pelosi never did oblige, but she did eventually declare: "As a practicing and respectful Catholic, this is sacred ground to me when we talk about this. This shouldn't have anything to do with politics."
Later, when a New York Times reporter at the same news conference said he wanted to return to the topic of abortion, Pelosi shut him down, saying, "I'm not going to."
In fact, McCormack's questioning of Pelosi had come just moments after the California Democrat had herself first raised the topic of abortion at the news conference in her opening remarks.
She was criticizing the House Judiciary Committee's passage Wednesday of a bill that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy as, in her word, "disrespectful" to the health and safety of women.
The full House may vote on the bill next week—and Democrats have been seizing on the bill to color Republicans as continuing a "war on women." But Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., sponsor of the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, and other supporters, have been pointing to the details of the Gosnell trial last month as helping to give his legislation momentum.
Against this backdrop, Pelosi began her news conference Thursday by criticizing House Republicans for what she said was continued inaction on legislation to create jobs, a refusal to go to a two-chamber conference on a final budget for the federal government, and a wrong-minded approach to student-loan reform.
"Instead, we're in a world of subterfuge, smokescreen—any subject you want to talk about. Just pick one out of the air. And yesterday was really just another day in the life of the Republican Congress," said Pelosi. "They passed legislation (in committee) that was disrespectful of the right, health, and safety of the American women. All the people who voted for the bill were men—disrespectful."
McCormack—who later told reporters he did not expect, or want, to become part of the story, said that he thought his question was a legitimate one.
In posing it, McCormack first noted to Pelosi that Republican members who support the bill argue there isn't much of a moral difference between what someone like Gosnell "did to infants born in 22, 24, 25 weeks in a pregnancy and what could happen at a clinic down the road in Maryland, where a doctor says he'll perform elective abortions 28 weeks into pregnancy."
"So let me just ask you this," McCormack said. "What is the moral difference between what Dr. Gosnell did to a baby born alive at 23 weeks and aborting her moments before birth?"
It was then that Pelosi right away accused McCormack of enjoying or even "savoring" asking the question of her, prompting laughter from some other reporters. She then offered, "What was done in Philadelphia was reprehensible and everybody condemned it. For them to decide to disrespect a judgment a woman makes about her reproductive health is reprehensible."
But McCormack persisted, even as Pelosi was saying "next question," and asked, "What's the moral difference, then, between 26 weeks elective abortion and killing that same infant born alive?"
Pelosi turned to him again, saying, "This is not the issue."
However, Pelosi then seemed to cast the Republican bill as one that would ban abortion completely, which it does not. "They are saying there is no abortion. It would make it a federal law that there would be no abortion in our country."
She added of the Gosnell references, "You are taking the extreme case. And what I am saying to you is what happened in Philadelphia was reprehensible." It was then that Pelosi accused McCormack of having "an agenda," and said to him, "You're not interested in having an answer."
She then told McCormack that she's responded to the extent she will to his question, "Because I want to tell you something, as the mother of five children … as a practicing and respectful Catholic, this is sacred ground to me when we talk about this. I don't think it should have anything to do with politics."
"And that's where you are taking this. And I am not going there," said Pelosi.
Pelosi's office later clarified that she did not mean that the Republican bill would ban abortions outright, when she remarked "there would be no abortion in our country."
"The leader is well aware of the details of the legislation," explained a spokesman, Drew Hammill. He said her intended point was that the bill would enforce a new type of ban, and that while it makes an exception for cases when the life of the woman is at stake, it otherwise "makes absolutely no allowance for protecting the health of women, or the victims of rape and incest." He said Pelosi was also underscoring her belief that "the ultimate goal of today's Republican Party is to overturn Roe v. Wade."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said during his own news conference later Thursday that jobs remain the No. 1 concern of the House GOP conference, but that in light of the details of the Gosnell case, he believes action on the Franks bill is appropriate.