The Dangerous Cowardice of Politicians on Abortion Rights

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Abortion has little room and patience for hypocrisy from either side. As passionate as the “abortion in all cases” or “no abortion in any case” are, at least both groups are morally and logically consistent.

Except neither stance is an automatic win come election time, and candidates, particularly Democrats, know it.

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, Americans heard many politicians bumble through a personal philosophy about being opposed to abortion as a private individual but not standing in the way of reproductive freedoms being eradicated. Apparently making medical decisions for millions of individuals is too morally taxing, yet quite easy to decide when a politician will rarely, if ever, be in a position to need one or if one was needed, money and power quickly erase any obstacles. This conviction is carefully crafted to provide comfort and security to the pro-choice community while giving hope to the anti-choice advocates.

What, precisely, do any of these personal convictions explicitly mean when applied to legislative reality?

“My position is that I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t think I have a right to impose my few on the rest of society. I’ve thought a lot about it, and my position probably doesn’t please anyone. I think the government should stay out completely. I will not vote to overturn the Court’s decision. I will not vote to curtail a woman’s right to choose abortion. But I will also not vote to use federal funds to fund abortion.” — Promises to Keep, Vice President Joe Biden, 2007

Does that mean Joe Biden would support allowing an undocumented teenager in a detention center obtain an abortion?

“People use labels all the time. But I’m kind of a traditional Catholic. I don’t like it personally. I’m opposed to abortion. And personally I’m opposed to the death penalty. I deeply believe, and not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions. So I’ve taken a position which is quite common among Catholics. I’ve got a personal feeling about abortion, but the right role for government is to let women make their own decisions.” — Senator Time Kaine (D-Virginia), Meet the Press, 2016

Would Tim Kaine vote for a bill that required doctor’s to obtain a woman’s entire pregnancy history before an abortion is performed?

[Representative Conor Lamb (D-PA)] doesn’t make his support of abortion a big part of his campaign. A Roman Catholic, he says he personally opposes abortion. But he opposes the GOP-proposed 20-week ban on abortions and has seen his views come under attack during the special election. And in an interview, he emphasized that the country was founded on the principle of separating church and state. “To me, that means we defend the law as it is,” he said. —McClatchy DC Bureau, 2018

Would Representative Lamb support requiring an 18-hour waiting period between having an ultrasound and an abortion?

On Election Day, voters don’t know these concrete answers, and the politicians from both sides want to keep it that way. Candidates want the flexibility to play both sides of the issue as quietly as possible. When a politician voices vague, malleable positions, voters will project agreement with their own views even if that agreement isn’t completely accurate.

To be sure, political rallies and informal Q&A sessions over deep fried Oreos don’t allow for such nuance. But the issue didn’t even make it onto the Democratic debate stage either despite being a deeply contested issue on all sides.

Self-proclaimed neutrality, which isn’t really neutral in reality, is an attractive tiny island in the stormy seas of political discourse. Except this position rarely works as an effective long-term legislative strategy, especially as the Supreme Court will consider relevant cases.

Support for reproductive freedoms is a binary issue. Only the three branches of government can grant or eliminate legal legitimacy for these rights. To act as if one can bravely act one way in private life and vote another way is an illusion designed to fool all of us — supporters and opponents alike.

Feminist. Fighter of emotional labor. Published in the Washington Post, Des Moines Register, and Scary Mommy. All opinions are my own.

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