The problem here is not only that Biden appears weak and vacillating on an issue of conscience — which he does. Or that he will now be pressured to repudiate every hint of moderation in his 36-year legislative career — though he will be. The Hyde Amendment has played a particularly important role for Catholic politicians. It has allowed them to draw a distinction between permitting abortion and promoting it. Supporting the amendment has let them claim neutrality on abortion even while being effectively pro-choice. For Biden, this fig leaf is now removed. And seeing a 76-year-old man religiously and ethically naked is unappealing.
At the start of Biden’s career — about the time that Roe v. Wade was decided — both political parties contained diverse views on abortion. Early in 1971, for example, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Edmund Muskie, was both Catholic and pro-life. During a television interview with David Frost, Muskie said: “I’m concerned about diluting in any way the sanctity of human life. . . . If it becomes all right to take a life in that stage, then how easy will it be to slip into the next step? Should people in old age who are senile — does it then become legitimate to take their lives?”
Later in that campaign season, after Muskie had dropped out of the race, fellow Democrat Hubert Humphrey attacked the party’s eventual nominee, George McGovern, for being too liberal on abortion. As Daniel K. Williams recounts in “Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade,” McGovern took the matter seriously enough to run a half-hour television broadcast dealing with issues important to Catholics. At one point, he was shown telling a Catholic nun that abortion should be a matter for states to decide and that he supported some abortion restrictions. McGovern’s first choice to be his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, was strongly pro-life. His second selection, Sargent Shriver, was another pro-life Catholic.
In the 1970s, there were also plenty of Republicans who were pro-choice, including Lowell Weicker, Bob Packwood, Howard Baker, John Tower and Barry Goldwater. In 1975, former first lady Betty Ford called Roe v. Wade a “great, great decision.”
All of this changed when Republicans such as Ronald Reagan actively embraced the pro-life movement, and when Democrats such as Walter Mondale actively embraced the pro-choice movement. A proposed antiabortion amendment to the Constitution proved particularly divisive. By the 1990s, the parties (at the national level) were in the process of becoming nearly monolithic on opposing sides.
We have come to see abortion as the ultimate culture-war issue, but it is not inherently ideological. The problem with making policy on abortion is this: A conceptus does not appear equal to a person. Yet there is no meaningful distinction between a newborn infant and a fetus the day before birth. Weighing the relative importance of human autonomy and the value of nascent human life is not a typical matter of left and right. Both support for abortion rights and opposition to abortion are argued as matters of inclusion and social justice.
This has left nearly monolithic parties to appeal to a more ethically complex country. A 2018 Gallup poll found 29 percent who believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances, 14 percent in most circumstances, 35 percent in few circumstances and 18 percent in no circumstances. So nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe that abortion should be available in all or some circumstances. And nearly 7 in 10 believe that abortion should be restricted in all or some circumstances.
Biden’s traditional position on this issue — that there should be a difference in government’s role in “the first day and the ninth month” — could effectively appeal to a country with these views. And his opposition to federal funding of abortion was one of the last remaining ways for a Democratic politician to tell Catholics (and others) that their ethical concerns have some degree of merit. Now, a Democratic presidential nominee is not allowed even a hint of reticence. Abortion must be supported and funded as a positive good.
The moral question is obvious: How does this allow Biden to live with his Catholic conscience? But the political implications are also relevant. Biden has made it harder — significantly harder — for cultural conservatives who are disturbed by Trump’s cruelty and prejudice to vote for Biden, should he be his party’s nominee.