The vice presidential debate may not have gone well for Tim Kaine but Democrats are still hoping to use it to help mobilize their base and persuade women to vote for Hillary Clinton. Much of that has to do with drawing attention to the outrageous things Donald Trump has said—things that Mike Pence either rationalized or denied. They’re also seeking to exploit Pence’s stance on abortion. The assumption is that Pence’s defense of his pro-life position will sink Republicans among female voters. Kaine’s assertion that in speaking up against abortion Pence was imposing his faith on the nation also resonates with liberals. That’s why Planned Parenthood produced a pro-Clinton ad with video from that portion of the debate Democrats are promoting and the New York Times published an op-ed denouncing the GOP as the party of theocracy as well as oppression of women.
The problem with casting this argument as being about church-state separation is that it misses the key point Pence made. If most Americans continue to agree with the Indiana governor that late-term abortions are abhorrent, it isn’t because they want to turn America into a theocracy; it’s because the science on the issue indicates that such procedures are akin to infanticide.
The debate over abortion is cast in narrow terms—“pro-choice” or “pro-life”—but the majority of Americans are in the middle. As the latest Gallup tracking poll on the question taken earlier this year indicates, Americans are split nearly evenly between the 47 percent who claim to be “pro-choice” and the 46 percent who say they are “pro-life.” Even more important, while 29 percent say they think abortion should be legal under any circumstances and 19 percent say it should be illegal under any circumstances, 50 percent say it should be legal only under some circumstances.
That means that Planned Parenthood, Kaine, and the Democrats are in effect backing abortions up until the moment of birth, which puts them out of touch with the clear majority of Americans who see the issue as more complicated than merely asserting the principle of “choice.” But while Pence is also in the minority with his own absolutist pro-life stance, he was at least moving toward the majority by noting the problem of late-term abortions. More to the point, he did so not by asserting his faith but by invoking science.
As the New England Journal of Medicine noted last year in a study that was important enough to make it onto the front page of the New York Times, babies born at 22 weeks into pregnancy now stand a good chance of survival if given adequate care. That means that late term abortions aren’t so much a choice as they are a decision to end a viable life.
If most Americans aren’t prepared to ban abortions carried out earlier in a pregnancy, they agree with Pence that late term procedures are beyond the pale. While pro-choice polemicists like Katha Pollit claim that late term or partial birth abortions are a myth promoted by pro-life propaganda, the truth is that such operations are a real problem and often lead to atrocities against both babies and mothers, such as the ones illustrated in the Kermit Gosnell murder case, which most of the mainstream media refused to report. Outrage about late term abortion and support for legislation banning them in legislatures throughout the country is not about forcing a particular religious conviction on women. Rather, it is a common-sense reaction to medical science.
That means that, when it comes to abortion, the problem isn’t would-be theocrats and science deniers. In this case, the denial of a scientific consensus about fetal viability comes from the left and not the right. If Democrats engage on this issue from a position of absolutism that is out of touch with the majority of Americans it won’t hurt Pence or the Republicans.