WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court decision Wednesday upholding a ban on a controversial abortion procedure heightens the issue's visibility in the 2008 presidential race and spotlights a shift in position by Republican candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The former New York mayor and other top Republicans vying for the White House welcomed the ruling while leading Democratic contenders said they deplored it.
Giuliani, the only major GOP candidate who supports abortion rights, has tried for months to mollify conservative critics.
On Wednesday, he praised the court for upholding the ban on the midterm procedure. "The Supreme Court reached the correct conclusion in upholding the congressional ban on partial-birth abortion," Giuliani said in a statement. "I agree with it."
His praise for the ruling contrasts his position while seeking reelection as mayor in 1997. On an abortion rights group's questionnaire, he circled "yes" next to the question of whether he would oppose "legislation that would make criminals of doctors who perform intact D&X abortions" -- the technical term for what critics call "partial-birth" abortions.
Kelli Conlin, president of the abortion rights group, now known as NARAL Pro-Choice New York, accused Giuliani of "flip-flopping." "I am absolutely astounded that Mayor Giuliani would do a 180-degree pivot on his former position," she said.
Asked to explain his change in views, Giuliani spokeswoman Maria Comella said the 2003 ban upheld Wednesday included "an appropriate exception for threats to the life of the mother."
In addition to supporting abortion rights, Giuliani supports public funding of abortion. But he often says he hates abortion and would advise women not to have one. He has also vowed to appoint "strict constructionists" to the federal bench, a term antiabortion groups often use to refer to judges who would overturn Roe vs. Wade.
But on Saturday, Giuliani irked abortion opponents by telling a group of Iowa Republicans that the party "has to get beyond issues like that."
"That wasn't received very well by the pro-life movement," said Jim Backlin, vice president for legislative affairs at the Christian Coalition of America.
For Republicans, abortion is a key issue in the 2008 presidential race. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has highlighted his support for outlawing abortion in an effort to mend his own frayed relations with conservatives.
Mitt Romney, who supported abortion rights when he ran for Massachusetts governor in 2002, now describes himself as "pro-life," fueling accusations that he vacillates on core issues for political gain.