From the transcript at http://www.debates.org/pages/trans2004c.html:
[Question from Sarah] DEGENHART: Senator Kerry, suppose you are speaking with a voter who believed abortion is murder and the voter asked for reassurance that his or her tax dollars would not go to support abortion, what would you say to that person?
KERRY: I would say to that person exactly what I will say to you right now.
First of all, I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins. I’m a Catholic, raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy. Religion has been a huge part of my life. It helped lead me through a war, leads me today.
But I can’t take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith, whether they be agnostic, atheist, Jew, Protestant, whatever. I can’t do that.
But I can counsel people. I can talk reasonably about life and about responsibility. I can talk to people, as my wife Teresa does, about making other choices, and about abstinence, and about all these other things that we ought to do as a responsible society.
But as a president, I have to represent all the people in the nation. And I have to make that judgment.
Now, I believe that you can take that position and not be pro-abortion, but you have to afford people their constitutional rights. And that means being smart about allowing people to be fully educated, to know what their options are in life, and making certain that you don’t deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the constitution affords them if they can’t afford it otherwise.
That’s why I think it’s important. That’s why I think it’s important for the United States, for instance, not to have this rigid ideological restriction on helping families around the world to be able to make a smart decision about family planning.
You’ll help prevent AIDS.
You’ll help prevent unwanted children, unwanted pregnancies.
You’ll actually do a better job, I think, of passing on the moral responsibility that is expressed in your question. And I truly respect it.
GIBSON: Mr. President, minute and a half.
BUSH: I’m trying to decipher that.
My answer is, we’re not going to spend taxpayers’ money on abortion.
He said a couple more things but I was crushed. I “knew” at that moment that Bush would win the election. We’re not going to spend taxpayers’ money on abortion. It can’t be any simpler than that. It can’t be any stronger than that. It can’t be more righteous than that.
Of course it was no more sincere than anything else Dubya has ever said. I’m certain he does not actually care about abortions one way or another. But he knows a rhetorical opportunity when he sees one, and Kerry dropped this one in his lap, and he grabbed the brass ring with a simple-sounding, strong-sounding, righteous-sounding lie.
What could make Kerry fuck up so badly? He missed it at the very beginning. It was in Degenhart’s question, plain as day, and he missed it — because everyone does.
To this hypothetical “voter who believe[s] abortion is murder,” Kerry should have said: “What makes you believe that? I’m afraid that this is pretty much a religious notion, so it’s irrelevant to discussions of public policy.”
What Kerry did say was not completely wrong. Yes, there was a lot of beating around the bush. But the gist was that even if you have some sort of “faith” you can’t rely on it when making decisions for the whole country. This is a noble sentiment. But the abortion idea is not controversial — not in the way he described it. The idea that abortion is murder comes entirely from religion. It is a religious idea from the very beginning. It has no other basis. But both candidates took the question at face value, as if religious ideas deserve the deepest consideration. This is the hold that religious notions have on the popular imagination. “I truly respect,” Kerry assured Degenhart, “the moral responsibility that is expressed in your question.” Moral responsibility? In holding fast to the dictates of an ancient pyramid scheme? That is not moral responsibility, it is criminal oppression. But no one sees it this way. That’s how completely religious memes have out-competed their rivals.