In public appearances, politicians avoid discussion of their more unpopular positions all the time. When they are at or near the top of a party ticket, moreover, they tend to downplay positions that divide their own team or that are under internal discussion. That’s why Joe Biden and Kamala Harris didn’t directly answer questions about hypothetical “court-packing” schemes that Democrats might or might not pursue if Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed as Trump’s third Supreme Court justice. And it’s why Donald Trump and Mike Pence evade blunt questions about the administration’s Cheshire cat of a health-care plan.
But lumping all the evasions together as functionally equivalent isn’t right. One particular Pence side step in Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate is astonishing if you know anything about the man’s long history as a crusader against legalized abortion. Asked by moderator Susan Page what he’d want his own state of Indiana to do if Roe v. Wade is reversed and states could outlaw abortion, Pence would not answer other than a vague reference to himself as “pro-life,” a term that means different things to different people. That Pence has any doubt whatsoever on exactly what he’d want Indiana to do in this suddenly very plausible hypothetical situation is preposterous, unless he’s been lying to us for his entire public career.
You don’t have to go very far to find out what Pence’s attitude toward the abortion laws of Indiana might be: As governor of the state from 2013 to 2016, he signed eight bills aimed at testing the willingness of federal courts to accept an erosion of reproductive rights while harassing abortion providers and the women who rely on them.
But during his six terms in the House, Pence established the crusading identity on this subject that led Marjorie Dannenfelser of the hard-line anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List to praise him as a “pro-life trailblazer” and the best of all possible choices as Trump’s 2016 running mate. He was best known for launching the relentless attacks on public funding for Planned Parenthood that soon became part of the anti-abortion movement’s playbook at every level of government. The “defund Planned Parenthood” campaign he began nearly led to a government shutdown in 2011 and again in 2015, and was a symbolic expression of the grip the ban-abortion cause had on the Republican Party.
And speaking of that grip, Pence’s GOP has for many, many years been united in insisting that Roe v. Wade be replaced not by some sort of live-and-let-live states’ rights position on abortion policy but with a constitutional amendment banning abortion nationwide permanently. (This Human Life Amendment has been in every Republican platform since 1980.) There have been occasional attempts (by presidential nominees in particular) to insist on exceptions for pregnancies that are the product of rape and incest, or that threaten the life of the woman being ordered to carry the pregnancy to term. But the basic principal of making abortion illegal has been sacrosanct, as Michael Kinsley explained in 2012:
Ever since , with various rhetorical flourishes, the platform has contained the same four elements: 1) the unborn child has a “fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed”; 2) endorsement of a “human life” constitutional amendment; 3) a call for judges who “respect human life”; and 4) new laws to “make clear” that the fetus is a “person” under the 14th Amendment. Paul Ryan has co-sponsored such legislation, declaring that the fetus is a “person.”
An even more visible proponent of “personhood” legislation has been — you guessed it — Mike Pence. Brian Tashman explained the significance of this position when Pence joined Trump’s ticket in 2016:
Advocates of federal personhood bills believe that if Congress passes legislation defining “personhood” as beginning at conception, they can bypass and nullify Roe v. Wade, criminalizing abortion nationwide with no exceptions. While the personhood movement has traditionally sat on the far-right fringes of the anti-abortion movement, in recent years Republican politicians like Pence have brought the extremist cause into the GOP mainstream. Unlike more established abortion rights opponents that seek to cut off access to abortion and gradually outlaw the procedure, personhood activists want the government to immediately end abortion in all cases.
Dubious as it is as a legal theory for circumventing the Constitution, the “personhood” movement is also too radical for the taste of many abortion opponents, suggesting as it does that certain forms of contraception might be banned as interfering with the development of a fertilized ovum. Personhood ballot initiatives have lost badly in Colorado, North Dakota, and (most recently) Mississippi. That Pence is inclined to go that far is another indication, should you need one, that he has not an ounce of doubt about the righteousness of taking control of reproductive systems from sea to shining sea.
On top of his single-issue devotion to the anti-abortion cause, pursuing that cause to its logical end of outlawing all abortions is Job One for a Christian right religiopolitical movement that regards Pence as its indispensable champion in the court of our erratic president. Here’s how I described Pence’s importance to Trump’s “faithful believers” in a review of a recent book about Trump’s relationship with conservative evangelicals:
You can sense the authors’ nagging doubts, though, perhaps nourished by the new president’s nasty Twitter language and other forms of thuggish behavior toward critics. Near the very end of the book they bring in their star witness for Trump’s inner transformation: Vice-President Mike Pence, the Christian-right warhorse who constantly attests to the president’s reliance on both prayer and the prayer warriors (like Trump’s all-Evangelical Faith Advisory Committee) for whom Pence runs interference.
All in all, it’s as likely that Pence would stop short of a total abortion ban in a world where the Supreme Court didn’t stand in his way as it is that Bernie Sanders will become a hedge-fund manager or Donald Trump a soup-kitchen cook. It’s the one thing about him that is most certain. And it’s precisely why he and his allies are so excited about Barrett’s potential advent to the Supreme Court.
So Pence’s evasions say a lot about the dishonesty of the anti-abortion movement and its confidence that its cause is winning the hearts and minds of the American people. All the efforts to distract attention from their fundamental radicalism with hand-wringing over a tiny number of late-term abortions can’t disguise that basic fact.