Dr. Ben Carson and the Vote Know Ad

[August 19, 2015]

[Note the Update, below]

In 1992 I was the Vice President for Communications of the Vote Know Coalition. This organization had been formed to coordinate a referendum campaign against a new Maryland law, one that had repealed a handful of consumer-protection laws related to abortion. (For example, this new law repealed the prohibition against paying kickbacks for abortion referrals, and another statute requiring abortion customers to be given a pamphlet listing alternatives-to-abortion resources.) We gained a record-breaking number of signatures and brought this law to referendum; we urged voters to “Vote No on Question 6.”

Election Day that year was November 3. In September we asked Dr. Ben Carson, then a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins, if he would tape a commercial for us. At that point he was becoming a familiar figure in Christian circles, but had not taken a public stand on abortion. He agreed to do the ad, and we faxed the script back and forth (in those pre-email days) until it said what he wanted to say.

On the evening of September 17, I met Dr. Carson at Flite 3 studios in Baltimore. He sat on a stool in front of a white backdrop and did take after take, about 30 in all.

A few days later the 30-second spot went live. It ran for10 days, as scheduled, was then replaced by a different ad.

On the eleventh day, October 1, we gathered around the office TV, stunned to see Dr. Carson speaking at a press conference called by our opponents. He stood behind a podium that displayed their name, “Maryland for Choice.” He was there to repudiate the ad. He claimed that he didn’t know that it would be a political ad. He said that he didn’t know that it would end, “Vote against Question 6.”

That made no sense. Every version of the script we worked on included the line at the end.  Our very name, “Vote Know,” stated our political purpose. Nothing had been concealed.

We were also bewildered that he had not made any attempt to contact us before taking this dramatic step. The ad had been running for 10 days, but he had not phoned or contacted us in any way.  We didn’t know anything was wrong was until we saw him standing behind a sign that read “Maryland for Choice.”

We immediately tried to reach him, but he avoided our calls. We never did succeed in making contact with him again. A pro-life doctor who was helping with the campaign, a friend of Dr. Carson, said he had tried to talk with him about it, but had just hit a stone wall.

This doctor had a theory, though. It was that Dr. Carson was still pretty new to talking about his pro-life beliefs, and had been caught wholly off guard by the flood of anger he received from pro-choice colleagues. This doctor told me he’d urged Dr. Carson to stand strong, and accept that such attacks just come with the territory. Dr. Carson had made a different choice.

All of this is a long time ago now. I bring it up only because I’m told the incident has come up in interviews, and that Dr. Carson is still saying that we deceived him. Well, it’s not surprising that he remembers things the way he stated them at the time. That’s not how we who were involved remember it, though. The only evidence I can offer is that I wrote up the story just a couple of months after it happened, in an essay for the journal Human Life Review. You’ll find the link here, and can scroll down to # 4 to read the account. I’ll also paste in the relevant passage here, below.

It’s not surprising that someone unused to defending the pro-life position could be knocked sideways by the fury of friends and colleagues, and that any exit from the situation could seem inviting. I’ll never forget how it looked, to see him standing behind a “Maryland for Choice” sign. But, as I said, that’s a long time ago. In the following decades Dr. Carson has become skilled and courageous in presenting his pro-life views. Everyone needs time to grow.

I would like to be able to be really enthusiastic about his candidacy, and am waiting only to hear him formulate a stand on legal protection for the unborn. It is one thing to feel a sincere revulsion toward abortion; but someone who steps from private life into the realm of public governance steps necessarily into the realm of lawmaking—of justice. The minimum purpose of any government is to protect the weak from violence at the hands of the strong. I look forward to hearing Dr. Carson’s stand on securing protection for children from the moment of conception, and I hope to become an enthusiastic supporter of his campaign.


[Below—here is how I wrote up the story a couple of months after it happened, in an essay for Human Life Review]

From “The Question of Question 6,” published in the Human Life Review, Spring 1993

… 4. You never know who your friends aren’t.

Our first TV commercial was going to be a humdinger: Dr. Ben Carson, the internationally famous pediatric neurosurgeon, had agreed to appear. Dr. Carson, besides being Johns Hopkins Hospital’s favorite son, was well known in evangelical circles for his inspirational/autobiographical books, and guested on the 700 Club. Was he pro-life? Well, apparently sort of a new pro-lifer. But that didn’t matter. We’d always said, you don’t have to be pro-life to hate this law.

After Dr. Carson agreed to do the spot, the faxes were busy with copies of the law, draft scripts, and revisions. We went over the points we wanted to make about this complex law in that short 30-second span, and rewrote the ad several times till it matched the doctor’s gentle, laid-back manner. After a week of such exchanges, we met at a cavernous soundstage to tape the spot. For some thirty takes, this soft-spoken black doctor sat on a stool on the simple set and repeated the words he had helped compose.

For ten days his ad ran, and we prayed for him, aware that he must be taking plenty of heat from his generally-liberal colleagues. Then, on the day the ad was due to be replaced with our second spot, we heard that Dr. Carson was appearing at a press conference.

The conference was being held by our opponents, Maryland for Choice. There Dr. Carson stood up and explained that we had misled and pressured him. He hadn’t realized that it would be a political ad. He didn’t know that the tag line, “Vote against Question 6” would be part of the spot (though it had appeared on every version of the script). The statements we had him make about the law needed further explanation to be made fully accurate.

The hurts here are too many to number. If Dr. Carson had concerns after taping the spot, he never phoned us. Though we could have helped him prepare responses against the criticism that no doubt assailed him, we were never given the chance. It was not just that he had second thoughts about the ad, but that he stood at Maryland for Choice’s podium to say so. We were bewildered and greatly saddened. And of course, “Even Dr. Carson says you lied” became the inaccurate epithet thrown at us till the end of the campaign.

Dr. Carson never contacted us again. We heard that in October he addressed a citywide revival crowd of 40,000 to reiterate that we had misled him and they should vote for the referendum. Last week I attended a play at my sons’ Christian school to mark Black History Month; one of the skits was a admiring presentation of Dr. Carson’s work. There are no words for how this feels, except the ancient ones: “If it were an enemy who taunts me, then I could bear it; but it is you, my familiar friend…”(Psalm 55:12).  …

UPDATE: On the day I posted this to my website, I received a phone call from someone connected with the Carson campaign, and later on I had a half-hour conversation with Dr. Carson himself.

Dr Carson is very low key and gentle, which comes across so obviously in his voice and manner. He explained that he really wasn’t pro-life in 1992; he became convinced on the issue only in  1998 or so, after hearing a comparison made to the slavery question: What would have happened if the abolitionists said, “I am personally opposed to slavery, but others should decide for themselves whether to keep slaves”? It also seemed to me that Dr Carson is a strongly commited Christian; he referred several times to God being in charge, and trusting the Lord. I’m very glad we had that conversation and cleared the air.

Initially they asked me to keep the phone call confidential, but after I received a phone call from a reporter researching the story, I asked for and received permission to tell it now.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.



  1. Oh dear Frederica, this saddens me. I have become a Dr. Carson fan over the last few years, and I do hope that he's grown since 1992. I will definitely be listening as he responds to pro choice/life debates. Thank you for sharing your experience.


    From FMG: Isn't it sad? But I think people would gladly accept it if he said he had not thought through his position fully at that time, and made a short-sighted decision. I really do. I guess we will see…

  2. A friend sent this post to me. It puzzled me for a few reasons.
    1. The post does not align with what I see in Ben Carson, his life, his background, his career, his campaign. All of these signal a person of high moral fiber and strong Biblical character and faith.
    2. The post is very vague on what the issues were that caused Dr Carson to abandon the group so publicly. Why did Dr. Carson distance himself from the VotekNOw group?
    3. Why the bitter dissappointment even now. Why no attempt to straighten things out?

    So I did some research and I found out the reason for Dr. Carson's distancing himself from the VotekNOw group. The group took the low moral road in conducting their vitriolic campaign. It is one thing to be in opposition. It is entirely another thing to oppose in a low-handed way. The VotekNOw group used confusion to try to trick the voters into voting "no" by copying the opposition's bumper sticker only using "NO" instead of "YES" — not at all admirable. It is no wonder as to why Dr. Ben Carson would want to distance himself from the Maryland VotekNOw coalition. The VotekNOw tactics are not in keeping with the Orthodox mindset.

    Dr. Ben Carson has my vote. Frederica appears to still be traveling on that VotekNOw low moral road 23 years later. Bad form Frederica, bad form. Not very Orthodox.

    FMG: Nektaria, I'm so perplexed by what you write here. Where did you get this information about a bumper sticker? We did not produce any bumperstickers. Our yard signs did not resemble Maryland for Choice signs.

    Dr Carson didn't say anything about distancing from us as a group, or anything about our being underhanded. He distanced himself solely from the ad, saying that he didn't know it would say "Vote against Question 6" at the end.

    We immediately tried to contact him, to understand why he'd done it, but he never responded to our calls.

    I am actually in favor of Dr Carson. I would like to be able to vote for him when the time comes. (The one thing I'm waiting for is to hear him say he wants to protect the unborn in our laws, and doesn't just oppose abortion morally.)

    I would not have brought this up at all–in fact, I had not brought it up. I saw no reason to bring it up.

    But yesterday someone sent me an email with a link to a public affairs TV show in Nevada, in which it had come up. Dr. Carson said the same thing he did back then, that he asked us not to use the "vote against" tag and we refused. (He didn't say anything about a bumper sticker, or our being underhanded; in fact he said "It's not that I disagreed with it" (our work for the referendum).

    The person who sent me the link was upset, and saying that Dr. Carson was calling us liars. I saw this could get out of hand. I wanted to set the record straight.

    So as the person who was most involved, who helped write the script and was in the studio while he taped it, I understand the pressure he was under. I think it is perfectly understandable. He felt an immediate, sudden attack from his colleagues. He had not been pro-life long. He didn't have experience explaining and defending his pro-life views. Anyone would feel overwhelmed in such a situation. Completely understandable. This is a long time ago, and he has grown and become strong in stating his pro-life opinions.

    As the person most involved, I say that I don't hold this against him, and I consider it completely understandable. I hope I will have the opportunity to vote for him when the time comes (though I do want to hear him say something about making abortion illegal–not just that he is personally opposed).

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