Pete Buttigieg, from left, watches as and Bernie Sanders and Beto O'Rourke shake hands and Elizabeth Warren looks on before a July debate. (Paul Sancya/AP)

It’s no secret that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is an unusual character in the 2020 Democratic field. She became a Fox News favorite from when she chastised Barack Obama for not saying “radical Islam,” she has drawn criticism for meeting with accused war criminal Bashar al-Assad, and she has also had to distance herself from past anti-gay rights comments.

And this week, she took another position that is rare in the 2020 field: She came out explicitly against third-trimester abortions.

“Unless a woman’s life or severe health consequences is at risk, then there shouldn’t be abortion in the third trimester,” Gabbard told the Rubin Report.

In doing so, Gabbard said something her 2020 opponents have strained to avoid. When answering such questions, they have often talked in broad terms about how it should be a woman’s choice, without delving into potential limitations on that choice. The impression left is that they support women making such decisions even in the third trimester.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was asked in April whether “a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth.” He emphasized that such situations are rare and suggested that the question (from Fox News) was politicized. But then he answered, “The decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician, not the federal government, not the state government and not the local government.”

Fox also asked South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg in May whether there should be any limitations on abortion, and he responded, “I trust women to draw the line when it’s their life.” After Chris Wallace pressed Buttigieg specifically on third-trimester abortions he, like Sanders, pushed back on the question. But Buttigieg affirmed his position.

“The bottom line is, as horrible as that choice is, that woman, that family may seek spiritual guidance, they may seek medical guidance, but that decision is not going to be made any better medically or morally because the government is dictating how that decision should be made,” Buttigieg said.

Beto O’Rourke offered a similar response when asked in April about third-trimester abortions, but he, too, seemed to want to broaden the topic before weighing in. “The question is about abortion and reproductive rights,” he said. “And my answer to you is that that should be a decision that the woman makes about her body. I trust her.”

O’Rourke was confronted about that comment two weeks ago and doubled down:

Q: My question is this: I was born Sept. 8th, 1989, and I want to know if you think on Sept. 7th, 1989, my life had no value.

O’ROURKE: Of course I don’t think that. And of course I’m glad that you’re here. But you referenced my answer in Ohio, and it remains the same. This is a decision that neither you, nor I, nor the United States government should be making. That’s a decision for the woman to make.

Asked about third-trimester abortions, O’Rourke spokeswoman Anna Pacilio said, “Beto has made clear this is an extremely personal choice that is a woman’s and hers alone to make.” Pacilio said. “The vast majority of voters agree that politicians have no place in these decisions, including these very rare instances.”

But the party isn’t totally embracing this issue. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has said that “there are limits there in the third trimester that are very important.” And the candidates who haven’t weighed in on this issue publicly don’t seem eager to do so. The campaigns of Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) didn’t respond to multiple requests for the candidates’ positions this week.

It’s true that third-trimester abortion is rare. As of 2015, 1.4 percent of all abortions came after 21 weeks (which is still within the second trimester). That’s true, even though most states don’t ban abortion until 22 weeks, 24 weeks or later. When they do come late in the pregnancy, it’s often for reasons beyond personal preference. But as Wallace noted in his Buttigieg interview, there are still nearly 6,000 abortions per year after 21 weeks. And, given that it’s generally illegal during the third trimester, it’s possible there could be more abortions if the law were relaxed.

What’s not true, though, is that the vast majority of voters agree that politicians should stay out of this issue altogether. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this summer showed 27 percent of Americans favor abortion being legal in all cases. An NPR/PBS/Marist College poll around the same time showed 18 percent felt “abortion should be available to a woman any time she wants one during her entire pregnancy.” An older poll, from Gallup in 2018, showed 13 percent said abortion should be legal in the final three months of pregnancy. Some polls indicate a slight uptick in support for abortion rights this year, including the Post-ABC poll, but generally these numbers have been pretty static.


Abortion support by trimester (Screenshot/Gallup)

Despite that stasis, the party’s leaders are shifting. Bill Clinton talked in the 1990s about keeping abortion “safe, legal and rare,” and Barack Obama in 2008 said late-term abortion bans were “appropriate” as long as there was “a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother.”

But Hillary Clinton’s answer at a 2016 debate trended toward what Sanders, Buttigieg and O’Rourke are saying today. She said she voted against late-term abortion bans in the Senate because they didn’t provide significant enough exceptions for the health of the mother, and she said that “you can regulate [abortion] if you are doing so with the life and the health of the mother taken into account.” But when Donald Trump accused her of supporting abortions in the ninth month, she added: “This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. And I do not believe the government should be making it.”

The year before, in 2015, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) challenged then-Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) to draw a line on when abortion should be prohibited, asking whether she was “okay with killing a 7-pound baby that’s just not born yet.” Wasserman responded by saying: “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story.”

None of these Democrats is explicitly saying, “I support allowing third-trimester abortions” — and, in fact, they seem to be trying hard to avoid doing so. Politicians eschew firm positions and like to reserve some plausible deniability, especially on extremely divisive issues like this. So it’s little surprise that so many of their answers hew to the same talking point. But their answers strongly point in that direction. Indeed, it’s difficult to read them any other way.

And that’s at least consistent with their rhetoric. If you cast abortion as an issue of women’s rights and say government should stay out of it, setting a time limit essentially acknowledges that abortion becomes problematic at some point. It’s somewhat similar to abortion rights opponents who argue that the procedure is tantamount to murder still supporting exceptions for rape and incest, or saying that only doctors and not women should be punished for illegal abortions.

Politicians have avoided taking those more absolutist positions for decades, preferring to strike a rhetorical balance for fear of appearing extreme. Increasingly, though, top Democrats aren’t so interested in erring toward the middle.

This post has been updated with additional polling data.