By Conor Clarke

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson is disgusted by this response from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, published in an interview with the New York Times Magazine:

Q: "Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid abortions for poor women?"

Justice Ginsburg: "Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae -- in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion."

After reprinting this quote, Gerson writes: "A statement like this should not be taken out of context." That's actually the very next sentence. Which is odd, because Gerson has ... taken Ginsburg out of context. Her full response to the question reads:


Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.

I suppose Ginsburg's quote is still a little ambiguous. I read her as saying, "At the time Roe was decided, some people held the view that abortion was needed to reduce the population growth of unwanted peoples, but I realized later that this was not a widely held view." (Interpretations can vary, so here is the entire interview.) I think it's pretty clear Ginsburg is not saying is, "I hold the view that abortion is needed to reduce undesirable populations."

Either way, what's not ambiguous is that the last sentence is important context! And I find it incredible that Michael Gerson delivered a pious little sermon on the importance of context immediately after depriving Justice Ginsburg of exactly that.

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