Rand Paul: Government Should Play a Role in Restricting Abortion

"One of the main roles government has is to restrict us from harming another individual," Paul told a conservative crowd on Thursday.

Sen. Rand Paul speaks during a rally at the Desert Vista Community Center on April 11, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (National Journal)

Since declaring his presidential candidacy, Sen. Rand Paul has cited his work as an ophthalmologist to back up his anti-abortion record. He has often spoken of holding "one-pound babies" in his hand while performing eye examinations on them. At a conference hosted by an anti-abortion group on Thursday, Paul specified that the babies he was examining often suffered from "retinopathy of prematurity," a condition that can lead to blindness if left untreated.

"When I see these little babies and I put them in the palm of my hand, I think, 'Well gosh, this baby certainly has rights,'" Paul told the crowd gathered in a ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington for the conference hosted by the Susan B. Anthony List.

In the past, Paul has sponsored a personhood amendment and backs a 20-week abortion ban, but more recently he has gained scrutiny for dodging questions about specifics. In the first week of his official presidential campaign—during a whistle-stop tour that criss-crossed the country—reporters branded Paul for giving "testy" interviews when asked for details about his stance on exceptions to abortion restrictions.

At a campaign stop in New Hampshire last week, Paul flipped the script on Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee.

"You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she's OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet," he told a gaggle of reporters. "Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it's OK to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me."

The DNC quickly clapped back at Paul with a statement from Wasserman Schultz.

"I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story," she said. "Do you stand by your opposition to any exceptions, even when it comes to rape, incest, or life of the mother? Or do we just have different definitions of 'personal liberty'?"

Paul pre-empted this line of questioning on Thursday, saying that opposing abortion is not out of step with his image as a small-government, libertarian-minded Republican.

"The government does have some role in our life. One of the main roles government has is to restrict us from harming another individual," Paul said. "You can't have liberty if you don't protect where liberty originates from, and that's our right to life."

Paul has quarreled with the media's focus on exceptions to abortion restrictions, saying it's too narrow a frame that intentionally scrutinizes Republicans while leaving Democrats out of the debate.

"I don't think we have a very honest debate about [abortion] in our country," Paul said Thursday, adding that conservatives should ask the Left, "So you think there's really nothing special about life?"

It's a tricky situation for Paul, because it is one that divides the Republican primary electorate from the general electorate. According to Gallup, 50 percent of voters think abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, while 28 percent believe abortion should be legal under any circumstance, and 21 percent think abortion should be illegal under all circumstances. Historically, a majority of voters have said abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother's health is imperiled. That majority has remained relatively static for the past 15 years.

Abortion is one topic Republican presidential candidates can wholly agree on in 2016. Republicans' satisfaction with U.S. abortion policies are at their lowest since 2001. There is no political advantage, at this stage in the game, to make any news either way about abortion.

Paul's gambit to expand the Republican base could falter among women over abortion, but there is some room for success among minority voters. Women (and voters in general) are almost evenly split on defining themselves as "pro-choice" or "pro-life." A 2013 Pew poll found that more than half of Catholic Hispanics and black Protestants think abortion is morally wrong. Latino voters writ large have been found to be more conservative than the general population on abortion. When you expand those results out, most black voters voters think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Paul also got in a shot at Hillary Clinton Thursday, accusing reporters of engaging in a "love fest" with her presidential campaign. And despite (or perhaps in spite of) the "testy" brand, he indicated he doesn't intend to soften his rhetoric toward the media any time soon.

"There is a difference in the way conservatives are treated versus liberals," Paul said. "I say, we have to push back."