Husband Bill has perhaps been a more reliable defender of legal abortion. Already pro-choice when he served as governor of Arkansas, he seemed troubled by the question of when life begins. He noted in his 2004 memoir that it is self-evident that biological life starts at conception. Even so, “No one knows,” he wrote, “when biology turns into humanity or, for the religious, when the soul enters the body.” Kengor reports that Bill sought the guidance of his then-minister, the Reverend W. O. Vaught, a conservative Baptist whose anti-abortion stance was well known. Vaught’s opposition, however, had been shaken by the real-life trials of parishioners faced with difficult pregnancies. Challenged by Bill to offer a definitive answer, Vaught turned to the Bible. Based on his reading of scripture, he concluded that not until God “breathes life” into a body does “personhood” start. Human life, then, begins at birth with the first breath, he said; while abortion may be morally suspect, it does not qualify as murder. For Bill, Vaught’s interpretation—which differs from the UMC’s—settled the issue.
In her public comments, Clinton has been more ambivalent than her husband. She has noted that the question of when human life begins is “delicate” and “difficult,” echoing the UMC’s position that the beginning of life is “the God-given boundary” of human existence. When Clinton was New York’s Senator, she refused to sanction legislation placing limits on access to contraception because, she argued, doing so effectively turns abortion into a stand-by method of birth control. In a 2006 email released by her campaign, Clinton argued that low-income women experience more unintended pregnancies when contraception is expensive or hard to find, and “almost half of unwanted pregnancies end in abortion.” She made clear in a 2007 Democratic presidential forum that she wants to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” And, she emphasized, “By rare, I mean rare.”
Clinton has broadened the scope of standard pro-choice arguments by acknowledging that abortion can be an agonizing decision and that it “represents a sad, tragic choice to many, many women.” She has also acknowledged that it can lead to long-term feelings of guilt and regret, which the UMC calls “post-abortion stress”—after-effects rarely discussed by pro-choice activists. When women weigh whether to terminate a pregnancy, Clinton counsels them to “summon up what we believe is morally and ethically and spiritually correct and do the best we can with God’s guidance.” Once again, her religiously grounded advice tracks the UMC’s: “We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause them to consider abortion. We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom, and discernment.”
Misgivings aside, Clinton’s support for legal abortion seems to have been constant since at least 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade. Women throughout history have sought abortions, legal or not, she says, and they will continue to do so even at the risk of their lives. She shares this non-negotiable starting point with the UMC, which while professing the sanctity of unborn human life also avows its respect for “the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother.” For Clinton and the UMC, the primary concern is to ensure the safety of women who, regardless of their reasons, opt for abortion.