On Late-Term Abortion, 2020 Democrats Are to the Left Even of Obama in 2008

Former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Kamala Harris during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates’ debate in Miami, Fla., June 27, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Bill Clinton’s ‘safe, legal, and rare’ feels so long ago.

Will any of the 20-plus Democrats running for president support any legal limits on abortion? So far, the candidates who have been asked that question have either dodged it or answered in the negative.

“Do you believe a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth?” Martha MacCallum asked Bernie Sanders at a Fox News town hall. “I think that that happens very, very rarely,” Sanders replied, before concluding: “The decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician, not the federal government, not the state government.”

“I trust women to draw the line,” Pete Buttigieg said when asked a similar question. Ditto Beto O’Rourke.

It’s widely known that the Democratic party has shifted to the left on abortion over the years. What makes Democratic rhetoric on abortion in 2020 remarkable is that it is not a break merely from Jimmy Carter’s 1976 support to ban taxpayer funding of abortion or from Bill Clinton’s 1992 pledge to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” The 2020 Democrats are taking a more extreme position on late-term abortion than the most recent Democratic president, Barack Obama.

Here’s what Democratic presidential nominee Obama told Relevant, a Christian magazine, in July 2008:

I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

When pro-choice activists pointed out that Obama’s comments were inconsistent with Roe v. Wade’s companion case Doe v. Bolton, which declares late-term abortion must be legal for reasons of “mental” or “emotional” health, he backtracked slightly. Obama said the exception for late-term abortion could be “rigorously” limited only to cases where women had “serious clinical mental-health diseases” (a position that was still inconsistent with Doe v. Bolton).

Maybe Obama’s comments were insincere: In 2003, he suggested that the government should not restrict late-term abortion at all. But his 2008 remarks were at the very least a concession to political reality, an indication of what he thought a Democratic candidate had to say to get elected.

With such a huge field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, might one of them echo Obama’s 2008 comments, out of either genuine conviction or political self-interest?

Maybe Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who said he was pro-life just a few years ago and worries that Democrats are out of touch with middle America? Nope. “The government should not be involved at all,” Ryan said after the Miami debate.

Maybe Andrew Yang, the technocrat who says voters want non-ideological leadership? “I’m for women’s reproductive rights,” Yang told me after the debate when asked if he supported any limits on late-term abortion.

Maybe John Hickenlooper, the moderate former Colorado governor who is warning Democrats they’ll lose if they lurch too far left? “That’s a longer conversation than we have [time for] here,” he said.

Maybe Marianne Williamson, the New Age author, would like to extend some love to viable unborn children? “This is a made-up issue in my mind. A woman doesn’t stroll into an abortion clinic at eight-and-a-half months and say, ‘Oh well, I don’t think I want to do this,’” Williamson told me. But what about, say, prohibiting abortion at 23 weeks into pregnancy when the viable baby and mother are both physically healthy? “I have a problem with the government telling a woman” what to do, Williamson replied.

The issue of late-term abortion is certainly not a made-up issue. There are more late-term abortions than gun homicides committed annually in the United States. And according to a 2013 study, conducted by professors at the University of California, San Francisco, “data suggest most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.” Just last month, BuzzFeed News profiled a healthy woman who aborted her healthy baby at 21 weeks, mere days before the child was old enough to survive outside the womb.

Does any Democratic candidate think that’s wrong? Will any candidate say that elective late-term abortions should not be permitted? Can any candidate explain the difference between elective post-viability abortion and infanticide?

Joe Biden once said in the 1990s that he would like to “ban all post-viability abortions,” but he has so far avoided being asked in an interview whether he still holds that view. If he abandons it, just as he abandoned his opposition to taxpayer funding of abortion, it will be yet another sign of how far left the Democratic party has moved since 2008.

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