“There’s nothing new or different here.” That was the message from Donald Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, Friday responding to Trump’s fourth position on abortion in four days, when Trump told CBS’s John Dickerson that yes, he believes abortion is murder, but that the laws “are set” and “I think we have to leave it that way.”
Got that, America? There’s nothing to see here in the pileup of Trump’s thoughts on one of the most personal and divisive issues in public policy, so please move along. There’s nothing new or different about Trump’s position, except everything that’s new and different.
Of course Trump’s entire position on abortion as a presidential candidate has been new and different from his position in 1999, when he told Tim Russert, “I’m pro-choice in every respect.” Trump now calls himself “very pro-life.” But when pressed in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Mathews on the details of what that means, Trump eventually said “there should be a punishment” for women who have abortions, but not for the men who got them pregnant in the first place. He reversed himself completely hours later in a written statement to clarify that the “punishment” should be for the doctors who perform the abortions.
By the time he got to CBS’s Dickerson, Trump was on to saying that abortion law is what it is and that’s how it should stay. When Dickerson pressed him on the question of whether abortion is murder, Trump turned in a head-scratcher. “I mean, I do have my opinions on it,” Trump said. “I just don’t think it’s an appropriate forum.”
If a network interview with a presidential candidate four months into the campaign isn’t the appropriate place to discuss abortion policy, I’m not sure what is. But Trump is hardly the only politician to think he can get through an election with a blanket, “I’m pro-life” or “I’m pro-choice,” and call it a day. The trouble for many comes when they get into the details, which can often reveal a total lack of interest in the subject, a troubling view of women, or both.
The fine print on abortion law might seem extraneous to Donald Trump, who is almost 70 and obviously just trying to get through interviews on a subject he hasn’t thought much about. But the details matter very much to women of child bearing age and the people in their lives. If a woman should be punished, are we talking jail or a fine? If abortion is murder, would the death penalty apply to whomever is charged? If Trump thinks abortion law should be “left to the states” as he said Friday, would he appoint Supreme Court justices with a different view? Has Trump thought of any of this?
When a politician like Trump says, “leave it to the states,” it’s crucial to understand what that means under the laws being passed by state legislatures. Forty-three states currently limit abortions, with some exceptions to protect woman’s life or health after a specified point in pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
A 2013 North Dakota law banned abortion after a fetal heartbeat is present, at roughly six weeks, but was overturned by a federal appeals court. Multiple states prohibit abortion after 20 weeks based on an estimate by lawmakers of when an unborn child is capable of feeling pain. Last month, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signed a series of abortion restrictions into law, including a requirement that a woman register with the state if she terminates her pregnancy after her child is diagnosed with a terminal condition in utero.
These are the details of abortion laws. For some people who consider themselves devoutly anti-abortion, these laws are the only way to stop a process that they believe is murder. For others, many of these laws are a dangerous invasion into decisions that women should be making on their own, with their families and their doctors.
People of good conscience have very different beliefs about abortion, but voters deserve to have a candidate who is professional enough to have thought through the issue and honest enough to tell voters what he believes, no matter what that is, including whether he doesn’t really care about it at all.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for the Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill Bureau Chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane. Follow her @1PatriciaMurphy.
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