Mike Pence's Casual Cruelty on Abortion at the VP Debate

Pence portrays later abortions as monstrous, while doing all he can to make it impossible to get an early one

Mike Pence spoke about his anti-abortion beliefs at Tuesday's vice presidential debate against Tim Kaine.
Mike Pence's Casual Cruelty on Abortion at the VP Debate

At Tuesday's vice presidential debate, moderator Elaine Quijano asked Tim Kaine and Mike Pence to each describe a time they had to balance their personal faith and a public policy position. Kaine responded that though he opposes the death penalty due to his Catholic faith, he allowed executions to go forward when he was governor of Virginia because that was the law, and it is not the role of the public servant to mandate the commands of one's faith.

Pence didn't give an example of when he has ever balanced his faith and policy. Instead, he explained that his faith controls his position on abortion – which is that Roe v. Wade should be overturned so that states can recriminalize the procedure.

But he didn't come right out and say that is his position, presumably because it isn't a very popular one, even among Republicans. Instead, he tried to portray Kaine and Hillary Clinton as the extremists by claiming they support "partial birth abortion."

But "partial birth abortion" isn't actually a thing ­– it's a term made up by activists to make abortion seem gruesome. It's used to focus attention on later abortions, which make many supporters of legal abortion queasy, and to vilify women who have them.

Which is cruel. Women have later abortions when something has gone terribly wrong – often the loss of a wanted pregnancy. But anti-abortion advocates have successfully used their tragedies to garner support for anti-abortion policies.

The procedure that abortion opponents termed "partial birth abortion" was a little-used technique for second-trimester abortions called "intact dilation and extraction," or intact D & E. It is indeed unpleasant, and no one wants to have one. In an intact D & E abortion, the physician would attempt to remove the fetus largely intact. The procedure was preferable for women with certain conditions and fetal anomalies, and having one meant a patient who'd lost a wanted pregnancy could hold the fetus in her arms and say goodbye, which some would-be parents found comforting.

But when undercover anti-abortion activists learned about the technique at a medical conference, they saw a public relations opportunity. After some message testing, the National Right to Life Committee rolled out "partial birth abortion." Thanks to their efforts, we now have a federal ban on intact D & E procedures, which the Supreme Court upheld in 2007.

Studies show women with unwanted pregnancies prefer to end them as early as possible, and the vast majority of abortions in this country are performed in the first trimester. Second-trimester abortions aren't even available in much of the country – it can be an ordeal to find a physician to abort even a doomed pregnancy.

Women who don't want to be pregnant, who abort in later term, tend to be young and poor. As Dr. David Grimes has explained, they get delayed by things like not realizing they're pregnant, or having to raise money to pay for the procedure and related travel expenses.

So it's pretty rich that people like Mike Pence portray having a later abortion as the act of a callous monster, while doing everything they can to make it impossible to get an early one.

Pence has been at the forefront of efforts to make abortion unavailable and the experience of getting one as expensive and unpleasant as possible. He signed a law aimed at shuttering clinics through nonsensical overregulation like the one the Supreme Court struck down last term, another requiring patients to make an extra trip to a clinic for an unnecessary ultrasound and some anti-abortion propaganda, and a ban on coverage of abortion in private insurance. Policies like Pence's that force women to jump through hoops and scramble for money to end a pregnancy result in later abortions.

But Pence doesn't really think late abortions are the problem – he thinks all abortions are. The reason he says nasty and ridiculous things about Clinton supporting "the idea that a child that is almost born into the world could still have their life taken from them," as he did Tuesday evening, is to distract moderates from the fact that he would like to upend constitutional law so the state could compel an unwilling woman to carry a pregnancy to term, from the outset of pregnancy.

States are free to ban abortion after viability, which occurs at about 24 weeks' gestation – and they do. That's been the law for over 40 years, and that's what Hillary Clinton supports.

The truth is, we don't have a late-term abortion problem in this country. Fewer than one percent of abortions are performed after 20 weeks; two-thirds are performed at eight weeks or earlier, when the embryo is too small to see with the naked eye. And we do have the technology to make very early abortion the norm. If Republicans were sincere about eliminating late-term abortion, they'd support making it as easy as possible for a woman to obtain a medication abortion the nanosecond she thinks she's pregnant. But they don't actually like very early abortion. Because it's a threat to the cause.