Abortion Returns to the Debate

The issue finally came up at the vice-presidential debate on Tuesday night, showing why religion and conscience are important in this election.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

In a debate filled with yelling and interruptions, it was the moment when Tim Kaine and Mike Pence finally got quiet: They were talking about their struggles with faith. Kaine spoke about having to preside over executions while he was governor of Virginia, even though he’s morally opposed to the death penalty. Pence, however, turned the question around and brought up an issue no moderator has dared to ask about: abortion.

“For me ... the sanctity of life proceeds out of a belief in that ancient principle of God,” Pence said. “What I cannot understand is Hillary Clinton—how she can support a process like partial-birth abortion.” He recognized that Kaine “holds pro-life views,” but “I cannot conscience a party that supports that.”

This was an important moment in the debate, because it highlighted vulnerabilities on this issue within both parties. Pence managed to sound empathetic to Kaine while pointing out the differences between the Democratic vice-presidential nominee and his candidate. He criticized Clinton on an issue that’s important to a lot of conservatives, including some of those who have declared themselves Never Trumpers over his weakness on issues exactly like this. But the way he handled the question was also a reminder of just how badly Trump has handled conversations about abortion in the past.

Both Clinton and Kaine tend to avoid detailed discussions of abortion and faith. As Kaine pointed out, Clinton comes from a Methodist background—a church that tentatively accepts abortion, but only in certain, rare cases. Kaine is a Catholic who has said he is personally opposed to abortion, as Pence pointed out. While it’s not quite accurate to say that Clinton supports partial-birth abortion—“I have been on record in favor of a late pregnancy regulation that would have exceptions for the life and health of the mother,” she said in March—over the years, she has shifted her language and policy positions to support the procedure. This year, she became the first Democratic nominee to run on a ticket that proposes a repeal of the Hyde Amendment—a budget provision that bans the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions.

As Pence pointed out, Kaine is publicly opposed to repealing the Hyde Amendment. He has said he fully supports Clinton’s platform, but as he said during the debate on Tuesday night, he sees abortion as a “fundamental issues of morality.” The Clinton/Kaine ticket is well-designed to appeal to pro-choice supporters, including the women voters who will be crucial for bringing them victory in November. But their split on Hyde, and their religious backgrounds, suggests they see abortion as clear-cut public-policy issue that’s also a challenging moral question.

This was the deeper significance of the exchange, which illustrated how much faith, and notions of morality, underpin American politics.

Many Americans see abortion as a complicated moral question, too, including many religious conservatives. Mike Pence spoke about the sanctity of life softly and directly.* His tone stood in contrast to the way Trump has spoken about abortion in the past—he once said women should be “punished” for having abortions. Pence denied this during the debate—“Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that would punish women who made the heartbreaking choice,” he claimed—but it was a reminder of just how different the Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates are. Many of those conservatives who have declared themselves Never Trump have pointed to this very issue: “There is nothing in [Trump’s] campaign or his previous record that gives us grounds for confidence that he genuinely shares our commitments to the right to life,” wrote more than a dozen conservative Catholic leaders in an open letter published in National Review last March.

This one question from this one debate, which focused in major part on questions of national security and foreign policy, likely won’t change the minds of many voters, not even the conservatives who have long hoped to hear a more convincing pro-life case out of the Trump campaign. As Alan Noble, a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and a founder of the group Public Faith, put it, “I doubt any Never Trumpers will be swayed. Pence was known as being very pro-life before the debate. Nothing new there,” he said. “And if you are opposed to Trump and pro-life, Pence's views and assurances that Trump really is pro-life probably won't affect you.”

The importance of Pence and Kaine’s conflict over abortion is not necessarily that it will win over conservatives to the Trump/Pence ticket, nor that it will push pro-choice voters toward the Clinton/Kaine campaign. It shows how revealing questions about religion can be in political debates: The whole exchange, which was one of the most emotional and seemingly heartfelt of the night for both politicians, started with a question about how they’ve struggled with their faith. Treating abortion, along with other policy issues, as “a fundamental issue of morality” is important to many voters—and so, as Elaine Quijano showed, it should be important to moderators, too.

* This article originally misattributed the statement that attitudes toward abortion are “the fundamental difference between the Clinton-Kaine ticket and the Trump-Pence ticket" to Mike Pence. We regret the error.

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