Journalists are not very good at asking about abortion policy. Politicians are even worse at answering — when they happen to be asked.
As has been the case in every Democratic-primary debate so far this election cycle, both the moderators and the candidates in the latest debate displayed their determination to avoid a real conversation about what they mean when they say they support “women’s rights.”
In one of two questions about abortion posed during the three-hour event, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow asked Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar whether she’d be willing, as president, to find a way to overrule state laws that restrict abortion.
“If Roe gets overturned and abortion access disappears in some states, would you intervene as president to try to bring that access back?” Maddow asked, citing laws passed in several states this year to limit abortion earlier in pregnancy.
Klobuchar, of course, answered in the affirmative, noting that she believes “we should codify Roe v. Wade into law.” It apparently matters little to Klobuchar, or to anyone else on stage, that the president of the United States has no constitutional authority either to “intervene” in state law to protect abortion access or to “codify” a Supreme Court decision.
Neither has it occurred to the many Democratic politicians who now promise to “codify Roe” that, aside from being outside the purview of the president and perhaps even Congress, doing so would implement a more-restrictive abortion policy than the one currently in place. Unlike the Supreme Court’s 1992 “undue burden” ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which now sets the judicial standard for challenges to state abortion laws, Roe granted that states had a compelling interest in protecting fetal life later in pregnancy.
That is a premise that few Democratic politicians remain willing to concede, and they proved it again in Wednesday evening’s debate. After Klobuchar insisted that “the women of America” will support Democrats in 2020 because Trump is wrong on abortion — ignoring that American women, including Democratic women, tend to support abortion restrictions at a higher rate than men do — Maddow went on to ask a more interesting question.
“Just this weekend, Louisiana reelected a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards. He has signed one of the country’s toughest laws restricting abortion,” Maddow said, referring to Louisiana’s heartbeat bill, which would prohibit abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually between six and eight weeks’ gestation. “Is there room in the Democratic party for someone like him, someone who can win in a deep-red state but who does not support abortion rights?” she asked Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren.
“I believe that abortion rights are human rights,” Warren replied. “And protecting the right of a woman to be able to make decisions about her own body is fundamentally what we do and what we stand for as a Democratic party.”
But neither Warren nor Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who dealt with the same question after her, was willing to directly answer the question, despite Maddow’s posing it a second time and asking Warren to be specific. Perhaps that’s because they know they don’t need to give a real answer.
If not for Edwards in Louisiana and Illinois congressman Dan Lipinski, the phrase “pro-life Democrat” might as well not exist, at least when speaking of politicians. And pro-abortion-rights politicians like those competing for the Democratic presidential nomination haven’t needed to advocate litmus tests in order to bring that about. If anything, those politicians have taken the positions they do because of external pressure from progressive activists and abortion-rights groups that fund the Democratic party and campaign on its behalf.
Consider what happened last month after Hawaii representative and Democratic hopeful Tulsi Gabbard repeated the once-common phrase that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” This remark spawned a number of think pieces about how she was harkening back to a bygone era of the Democratic party, and a number of prominent abortion-rights activists insisted that using the word “rare” is stigmatizing to women who choose to have an abortion.
In terms of policy, too, the Democratic party has abandoned any notion of a gray area, including the idea that both parties can agree on reducing the demand for abortion. Instead, the party’s official platform advocates disposing of the Hyde amendment so that the federal government can directly underwrite abortion procedures with taxpayer dollars. Even Joe Biden, who once vigorously supported Hyde and calls himself “personally pro-life,” has embraced the position that abortion should be publicly funded.
At a time when Democrats insist that Donald Trump poses a unique threat to our society and our government, it is striking that they simultaneously refuse to offer any attempt at moderation on key policy issues in order to entice voters away from the GOP. And while some of the Democrats running have eschewed progressive policies such as the Green New Deal or Medicare for All, nearly every candidate has adopted down-the-line support for abortion, for any reason, at any stage of pregnancy, funded by the taxpayer — a position out of line with both the average American and plenty of Democratic voters.
It’s a stance that might serve them well as they fight to become the Democratic nominee, but the candidate who wins that battle will be less palatable in the general election as a result.
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