Can Women Be Trusted on Abortion? Two Men Weigh In

OCT. 5, 2016 New York Times Opinion Page

abortion

Abortion rights supporters gathered at the Indiana Statehouse in April to protest an anti-abortion law signed by Gov. Mike Pence. Credit Mykal McEldowney/The Indianapolis Star, via Associated Press

Well, that was painful. What with the cross talk, interruptions, insults, sneers and overly rehearsed zingers, the vice-presidential debate on Tuesday surely bewildered more voters than it enlightened. There was one area, though, in which both Senator Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence were crystal-clear and decidedly different: abortion rights.

Granted, it took long enough. An hour and 22 frustrating minutes dragged by before anyone seemed to remember women. And when abortion came up, it was not because the moderator, Elaine Quijano, posed a direct question but because she invited the candidates to talk about their faith. Still, now we know: Mr. Kaine, despite his Catholicism, and his personal identification as “pro-life,” supports abortion rights, as does Hillary Clinton. Mr. Pence, who calls himself an “evangelical Catholic,” wants to ban abortion, as does Donald J. Trump.

The way each man framed his position was different, too — and telling.

The Republican Party often describes itself as a big tent with room for a range of views on abortion rights, same-sex marriage and other gender-related issues, unlike those rigid, narrow-minded, politically correct Democrats. Indeed, once upon a time there were pro-choice Republican politicians — think of Nelson Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe — but that was before the party became a subsidiary of the Christian right. Last year only three Republicans in Congress voted against defunding Planned Parenthood.

By choosing Mr. Pence, an energetic and enthusiastic leader of the movement to make abortion a crime, Mr. Trump aligned himself with the dominant views of his party, whose platform has long called for banning abortion, and reassured the Christian conservative base that, whatever his past views, he is 100 percent with them today.

Now, as we saw Tuesday, it’s the Democrats who permit a broader range of views. Mr. Kaine has a mixed record on choice: As a candidate for governor in Virginia, his support for some abortion restrictions cost him the endorsement of the Virginia chapter of Naral Pro-Choice America. Unlike Mrs. Clinton and the Democratic Party platform, he is in favor of the Hyde amendment, which bans federal Medicaid dollars for abortions, although, as vice-presidential candidates must, he has said he will go along with his running mate’s position.

How did we get here, where two powerful men argue about whether abortion should be legal while both agree that it’s wrong and against God’s will?

Mr. Kaine talked about the distinction between his personal religious beliefs and public policy, about Roe v. Wade as settled law. Mr. Pence quoted a Bible verse that abortion opponents like to cite as proof of fetal personhood. (The word abortion appears nowhere in Scripture.)

Mr. Kaine talked about trusting women as decision-makers. Mr. Pence talked about the beauty of adoption — in the context of criminalizing abortion, that really means forcing women to bear children for other people — and “health care counseling” for women. When he says that, he is surely referring to so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which try to dissuade women from ending a pregnancy, often through deception, scare tactics and Christian proselytizing, and to which Governor Pence has funneled millions of Indiana taxpayers’ dollars.

Mr. Pence’s demeanor on Tuesday may have been calm and friendly, but his record on reproductive rights is horrendous, and voters need to be aware of that. A few highlights: As Indiana governor, he promoted a law, stayed by a federal judge, which would have banned abortion for fetal disability. The law also mandated the cremation or burial of aborted — or miscarried — embryos and fetuses, no matter how early. He slashed Planned Parenthood’s budget, which led to the closing of five clinics that provided testing for sexually transmitted diseases and coincided with a rise in H.I.V. infection in his state. And as a congressman, he led the fight to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding in 2011.

When Mr. Kaine mentioned that Mr. Trump had called for punishing women who had abortions, Mr. Pence brushed it aside. His running mate, the Republican nominee for president, talked like that only because he’s “not a polished politician.”

Mr. Pence would much rather talk about so-called partial birth abortions, and those mythical day-before-birth procedures anti-abortion groups want to portray as the norm. Surely he knows, though, that a woman has already been punished in his own state. In 2015 in Indiana, a woman named Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison for what the prosecutor said was a late self-abortion. (Last month a judge overturned her feticide conviction.) Twenty years for taking a pill you can buy over the internet? That sure sounds like punishment to me.

I wish we didn’t so often discuss abortion rights in the context of religion. We’re not a Christian nation, much less a Catholic or evangelical one. Why should women’s rights have to pass through the eye of a theological needle? Given that the next president will nominate at least one and probably two or three more justices to the Supreme Court, it’s discouraging that we are still talking about abortion as a matter for biblical exegesis.

Tuesday night Mr. Kaine showed that he is able to differentiate between church and state and respect the judgment, convictions and consciences, as strong as his own, of the roughly one million American women a year who end unwanted or catastrophic pregnancies. Mr. Pence, by contrast, made plain his determination to force his personal religious beliefs on every woman in America.

At least on this issue, sound and fury gave way to clarity.

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