Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.). (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Editorial Writer

Never fear, pro-choicers: Tim Murphy believes in exceptions to abortion restrictions. For rape, incest, the life of the mother and … Tim Murphy.

The avowedly antiabortion Pennsylvania congressman, who co-sponsored the 20-week ban bill that just passed the House and who has held forth on “honoring life from the moment of conception,” reportedly asked his mistress to get an abortion during a pregnancy false alarm last year.

This is, of course, the dictionary definition of hypocrisy. Murphy’s countless critics have accused him of adopting a public stance that doesn’t line up with his private views to score political points. But it’s unlikely that Murphy has always believed women have the right to choose and merely pretended he thought abortion was a mortal sin so he could get elected in southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s more likely he thought he was pro-life until he ran into trouble himself — and that even now, he isn’t so sure.

Murphy is far from the first person caught practicing what he preaches against. He’s not even the first Republican congressman. In 2012, it surfaced that Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) supported his ex-wife when she ended two pregnancies and pressured a a patient — 24 years his junior — with whom he was having an affair to do the same. (He won reelection anyway.)

The fact is, it’s very hard to know what you’d do if you were pregnant until you are actually pregnant. Even a pro-choice woman can tell herself that, while she thinks others should do as they please, if she got pregnant she would probably stay pregnant. A pro-life woman can tell herself she definitely would. Men, who will never be more than adjacent to abortion, have an even harder time imagining themselves impregnated — and may have an even easier time reassuring themselves they would do the “right thing.”

There’s a reason even those who support abortion rights gravitate toward the saddest abortion stories: the women who discover at 21 weeks that their babies are missing half their hearts, the ones who make the wrenching decision to spare their children constant pain by terminating pregnancies that were very much wanted. These stories are sad. They are tragic. But weeping along with those women is less difficult than reading about others who ended pregnancies that were unwanted from the start and admitting, yes, maybe, we would do that too.

What the Murphy scandal shows is that some Americans’ reluctance to relate to people who have had abortions does not stop even when they or their partner have had (or planned to have) an abortion. Instead, the contortions continue. Though Murphy told his mistress he “winced” at his office’s antiabortion rhetoric, he keeps on crusading for “a nation committed to honoring life and ensuring American taxpayer dollars are never spent to end a life before it begins.” He still co-sponsored Tuesday’s 20-week ban bill, and he will still try to defund Planned Parenthood. He is, in other words, still pro-life.

Sociologists who study the antiabortion movement have discovered the same phenomenon in women: Some profess to be pro-life even as they wait in an exam room to terminate a pregnancy. Others, anecdotally, have waved signs outside of the same clinic that performed their procedure just the day before. “Well,” they say, “my situation’s different” — when the only different thing about it is this time it’s happening to them.

We can probably chalk up Murphy’s public adherence to the principles he has privately abandoned to his desire to hold onto his seat, at least in part. But it’s also possible he really does still see himself as a pro-life politician — a man who knows what is best for women and their unborn children, just as he knew what would have been best for his own.

As much as the abortion debate is full of hypocrisy, it is also empty of empathy. Instead of identifying with everyone else who gets an abortion, people such as Murphy tell themselves they’re not like everyone else at all.