With all the talk about Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly, people might not have noticed that there was quite a bit of discussion of abortion in Thursday’s Republican debate, and that discussion is continuing through today. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say the party and its candidates are moving to the right, what’s happening is that they’re making clear just how far to the right they are.
One moment in the debate that may have struck some as odd occurred when Marco Rubio got a question about him supporting exceptions for rape and incest victims to abortion bans, and he insisted that he supports no such thing. Mike Huckabee declared that “I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.” Scott Walker went even further, stating his opposition to exceptions to save the life of the pregnant woman (“I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother”). Walker recently signed a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, which did contain an exception to save the life of the mother, but no exceptions for rape or incest.
This is a deeply unpopular position, to say the least. When pollsters ask whether people think that rape and incest victims should be able to get abortions, more than 80 percent will say yes, including majorities of Republicans (there are some examples here). Between 60 and 70 percent are against overturning Roe v. Wade, a position on which Republicans are united. And the GOP platform has for some time called for a complete ban on abortion without any exceptions.
Rubio in particular is attempting to take a radical position and present it as the soul of thoughtful moderation. Yesterday, he went on “Meet the Press” and clarified that he has supported legislation with rape and incest exceptions because “I’ll support any legislation that reduces the number of abortions,” and if that means voting for a ban that contains those exceptions, he’ll go along. But I don’t think Rubio is quite telling the truth on that point. For instance, I doubt he’d support legislation that mandates comprehensive and fact-based sex education and does away with the farce of “abstinence only” — which would absolutely reduce the number of abortions. What he really means is that he’ll support any legislation that reduces abortion by restricting women’s reproductive rights.
Even though I’m firmly pro-choice, I’ll grant that Rubio (and the party itself) is being intellectually consistent by opposing rape and incest exceptions to abortion bans. If you think abortion is murder, then you should believe it’s murder no matter what led to a woman becoming pregnant. When you say we’ll make exceptions for rape and incest victims, what you’re saying is that whether a woman is able to get an abortion should be a function of someone else’s judgment of her virtue. If she got pregnant because she was the victim of a crime, then okay, she can have the abortion. But if she willingly had sex, then she should be punished by being forced to carry her pregnancy to term.
If Rubio is at all different from other members of his party, it’s only in his tone. Here’s what he said when Chuck Todd asked where the line is between the fetus’ rights and those of the woman:
That’s why this issue is so hard. There is no doubt that a woman has a right to her own body, has a right to make decisions about her own health and her own future. There’s no doubt. And there’s this other right, and that’s the right of a human being to live. And these rights come into conflict when it comes to this issue, and so you have to make a decision. And it’s hard. I don’t say it’s easy. Listen, you’re 15 years old, and you become pregnant, and you’re scared, and you have your whole life ahead of you, and you’re facing this, that is a hard situation. I tell people all the time, don’t pretend this is easy. This is a difficult question. But when asked to made a decision between two very hard circumstances, I’ve personally reached the conclusion that if I’m going to err, I’m going to err on the side of life.
There’s a lot of empathetic language there, but here’s the substantive difference between Marco Rubio and other Republicans on this issue: Other Republicans won’t even acknowledge that women have any right to control their own reproductive lives, while Rubio says women have such a right, but believes that in practice that right should always be trumped by the state’s desire to force her to carry that pregnancy to term. Which means that he doesn’t actually believe her right exists. He sounds a lot friendlier when he says it, though.
I’m sure he hopes that will be enough to overcome the fact that he’s taking a position most Americans disagree with. And in the right circumstances, it might be — so long as this isn’t an important issue on Election Day, and Democrats aren’t making too much of a big deal about all that “war on women” stuff. Republicans probably shouldn’t count on that, though.