Changing the Terms of the Abortion Debate

Public opinion on abortion is moving, but West Virginia's governor evidently hasn't noticed.

West Virginia Governor Early Ray Tomblin.

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, center.

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Contrary to expectations, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin used his veto pen Saturday to kill the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a measure outlawing abortions in the state after 20 weeks.

The law created by the legislation would have protected unborn children beginning at 20 weeks – more than halfway through pregnancy. Similar laws, born of the recognition that an unborn child can feel pain at that stage of a pregnancy, have passed in 13 states. A federal version has been approved by the U.S. House and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has collected more than 40 cosponsors for the effort he is leading in the U.S. Senate.

Tomblin is one of a very few Democrats who campaigned for office as a supporter of the pro-life position held by a majority of West Virginia voters. His decision to kill the bill came as a surprise, especially since it had been approved in February by the Democrat-controlled state senate by a vote of 29 to 5 and the Democrat-controlled state house by a vote of 79 to 17.

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Supporters of the measure have been strong in their criticism of Tomblin’s decision. “Missing the tragic irony of his actions, Governor Tomblin said, ‘I believe there is no greater gift of love than the gift of life,’” Susan B Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said. “This high profile hypocrisy is producing justified outrage in West Virginia and across the nation. Shame on Governor Tomblin for turning his back on unborn children and women by vetoing a compassionate, common sense limit passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.”

According to the SBA List, “scientific evidence shows that unborn babies are capable of feeling pain by 20 weeks of life,” a fact that has been used to drive support for the bill in state legislatures across the country. By turning his back on this fact, Tomblin is opening himself up to criticism that will follow him through the next election and, potentially, into retirement.

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The American debate over abortion is changing. In the last year, national polling conducted for or by Quinnipiac, The National Journal, Huffington Post, NBC/Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post/ABC News have all found pluralities or majorities supportive of abortion restrictions including those limiting access to abortion more than 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Interestingly, many of these surveys showed women supporting these measures in higher proportions than men.

For Democrats running for office, the abortion issue is usually cast in black and white: “I’m for it while my Republican opponent is against it.” Technology has destroyed the simplicity of that argument. Too much is now known about fetal development at various stages for the “abortion at any time and for any reason” to remain a political winner in all but the most liberal of areas

Abortion is now much more of a nuanced issue. That’s why Democrats and their friends in the media and the so-called “women’s groups” work so hard in election after election to manipulate Republican candidates into saying something unimpeachably stupid. This allows the supporters of abortion rights to campaign against a fringe position rather than defend one. Why the GOP plays along remains a mystery unless, using Occam’s razor, you buy into the argument that Republicans really are “the stupid party,” making no further explanation necessary.

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By vetoing an anti-child pain bill, Tomblin has himself embraced an extreme position, something he cannot lay off on advisors who told him the measure was unconstitutional. Presuming he intends to seek another term, this complicates his plans. The GOP, and supporters of life, should take the issue to him wherever and whenever they can, not just because they have principle on their side, but because it is a chance to learn what arguments work and which ones don’t. Lots of issues get tested out in state elections before they emerge on the national stage. For conservatives, this one actually works to their benefit and they should not be embarrassed if they choose to make a lot of noise about it.

The Democrats are not likely to abandon the “war on women” strategy anytime soon. It works for them because the Republicans have simply failed to come up with a winning counter-argument. This is not because the facts are not on the GOP’s side, but because the “party of Lincoln” has not invested sufficiently in a program to come up with appropriate responses. Until they learn how to manage the defense and mount an effective offense, they are going to lose yardage again and again and again.

The fight over abortion restrictions is part of that. As long as the GOP continues to cede the principled position to the Democrats then the party of Obama and abortion will be able to get away with the lie that the various procedures undertaken at different stages of pregnancy don’t actually stop a beating heart.