The official position of the Republican Party on abortion is more extreme than most people realize. All of its recent platforms have declared that "the 14th Amendment's protections apply to unborn children." The 14th Amendment is the one that protects fundamental rights and "equal protection of the laws." If "unborn children" are a protected group under the 14th Amendment--like blacks, women and so on--abortion is unconstitutional. A state couldn't legalize abortion even if its citizens wished to. Women who procure abortions and doctors who perform them would have to be prosecuted for murder, just like a woman who hires a gunman to kill her child. Death-penalty states would have to either stop executing murderers or start executing women who have abortions.
Most Republicans can ignore this extremism. But not anyone running for President. It is a special problem for former Governor Mitt Romney and former mayor Rudy Giuliani, both of whom used to favor abortion rights. Their different solutions test the question, What is the best way to safely dispose of a fundamental moral belief that you wish you didn't have?
Romney's approach might be called "Today is the first day of the rest of your campaign." In short, he has flipped. As recently as 2002 his support for abortion rights was "unequivocal." Now he holds the opposite view with equal firmness. The firmness is good, but just a dab of equivocation wouldn't hurt. To go from one unequivocal extreme to the other reflects a mind that is more concerned about being in the right place than about why this is the right place to be.
At the second Republican debate, on May 15, Romney tried repositioning his earlier pro-choice views as a mass of quivering equivocation. He claimed he was always "personally pro-life." Then, as Governor of Massachusetts, dealing with issues such as "embryo farming," he changed his mind and decided that Roe v. Wade "cheapened the value of human life."
Was "embryo farming" an actual issue in Massachusetts while Romney was Governor? Well, maybe. Romney's problem is that flip-flops use up a lot of stored credit and goodwill, and he has been to that storage closet too often lately on other matters, such as gun control.
Giuliani's approach can be labeled "lemons into lemonade." Rather than changing his mind, or pretending to, he is sticking to his pro-choice guns (his pro-gun-control guns, too, for that matter) and hoping to get credit from Republican voters for being a feisty, independent-minded old cuss. He's also hoping that there are Republicans who care more about winning than about fetuses.
But Giuliani's alleged straight talk seems even more dubious than Romney's apparent duplicity. First, Giuliani is not really standing firm. He's adjusting his position as much as he dares, and then he's standing firm. He used to support federal funding for abortion. Now he doesn't. And now, like Romney, he has been personally opposed to abortion all along. In the second Republican debate, he referred glibly to "millions and millions of Americans who are of as good conscience as we are, who make a different choice on abortion." Antiabortion Republicans watching may have thought, Whoa! What do you mean by "we," Kemo Sabe?
Second, Giuliani's story line about standing firm would have been more impressive if it hadn't been accompanied by stories--apparently leaked by his staff--about how they came to settle on this strategy and how clever it is. In the first Republican presidential debate, Giuliani tried to project ambivalence (not a bad place to be on abortion), but it came out as indifference (a bad place to be). He said it was O.K. with him if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and O.K. with him if it didn't. So his campaign decided to go with a "standing firm" narrative instead, as if these were racks of suits from which you could choose the one you thought fit the best. If "standing firm" seems like a clever campaign strategy, then it isn't very clever, is it?
Ever since Roe, politicians seeking a middle ground on abortion have been attracted to this notion of personal opposition but official toleration. Its roots go back to John F. Kennedy's famous speech to the Protestant ministers of Houston, in which Kennedy essentially offered voters a deal: If you won't allow my religion to affect the way you vote, I won't allow my religion to affect the way I govern. Giuliani and Romney both want that deal.
But that deal is no longer available. It is bizarre for a politician to promise not to let his most profound moral beliefs affect the way he governs. By contrast, Giuliani's point that Republicans will lose the election if they don't lighten up on abortion may well be true. Not only that: it may be the only assertion made by Giuliani or Romney on the subject of abortion in this campaign that the speaker really, in his heart, believes.