It was sort of inevitable that on his first day of campaigning as an announced candidate for president earlier this month, Rand Paul would be asked whether he supported a ban on abortions in cases of rape or incest.
Reporters have been asking Republican candidates that question ever since 2012, when the Missouri Republican Senate candidate said he supported such a ban and added that pregnancies were unlikely in cases of “legitimate rape.”
But Paul’s reply wasn’t what the reporter expected. “Why don’t we ask the (Democratic National Committee) is it OK to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and go ask (DNC Chair) Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that’s just not born yet.
“Ask her when life begins, and ask Debbie when she’s willing to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, come back to me.”
Reporters didn’t have to ask Wasserman Shultz, who quickly tweeted in reply, “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story.” In other words, any abortion before birth is OK. That’s consistent with the platform adopted at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
It’s also a position, like Akin’s, not supported by a large majority of the American people. Large majorities oppose re-criminalizing all abortions. But large majorities also support limits on abortion, including banning them after 20 weeks (when about one-quarter of babies can survive) or 24 weeks (when half or more can).
The Democratic National chairman and the Democratic national platform say that abortions are permissible beyond that time. If reporters can ask Republicans all over the country whether they share the view of a past Republican Missouri Senate nominee, shouldn’t they be able to ask Democrats all over the country whether they share the view of the national Democratic Party’s chair and platform?
It’s not big news when a party’s Senate nominee in one state disagrees with the party’s Senate nominee in another. That happens fairly often. It’s bigger news — not earthshaking news, but bigger news — when a party’s Senate nominee disagrees with the party’s national leaders.
So Rand Paul was on solid ground when he refused to answer the rape-and-incest question until reporters started asking Democrats the 7-pound-baby question.
Including, certainly, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Which conscientious reporters will do if they consider it more important to do their jobs fairly than to help the candidates they like or the causes they support.
“Abortion should remain legal, but it needs to be safe and rare,” Clinton said on the 2008 campaign trail. She has also claimed that the decision to have an abortion is “one in which the government should have no role.”
As a senator, she voted against the partial-birth abortion ban and against a bill to make it a crime to harm a fetus in the course of committing a violent crime. During her 2000 Senate campaign she said, “I can support a ban on late-term abortions, including partial-birth abortions, so long as the health and life of the mother is protected.”
But as those who follow the issue know, “health of the mother” is a loophole that devours the law. The courts have interpreted “health” to include emotional health, and it seems reasonable to assume that most women with unwanted pregnancies are suffering some emotional distress. Most Americans think they should be able to abort the baby at early stages in the pregnancy, but not at late stages.
So let the reporters who ask Hillary Clinton and other Democrats their views on late-term abortions keep in mind, for use in follow-up questions, that the “health” exception means abortion at every stage is permitted.
It has become a standard rule in political analysis that cultural issues help Democrats, particularly with young voters. That’s true of same-sex marriage, which only a few voters supported 20 years ago but which has majority support today and supermajorities among Millennials.
But opinion on abortion has changed little over the years. Millennials, many of whom have seen sonograms of siblings, are if anything a bit more negative on abortion than their elders.
On this issue, many Democrats are out of step with public opinion. Rand Paul is right that reporters who avoid questioning them about that are remiss in their journalistic duty.
Michael Barone senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.