Dr. Ben Carson is taking the strongest pro-life position possible, declaring he would “ultimately love” to see the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision overturned, and abortion made illegal nationwide, with very carefully-defined exceptions where the life of the mother is at stake.
Carson also argued against the other two exceptions in the traditional trinity, incest and rape, saying that children conceived through such methods are not at fault, and many have gone on to lead valued and productive lives.
The relevant passage, from his interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press, begins roughly six minutes into the video below:
Todd begins by asking Carson if life begins at conception, to which Carson replies, “I believe it does.”
Asked how he balances the rights of the mother against those of the unborn child, Carson said, “In the ideal situation, the mother should not believe that the baby is her enemy, and should not be looking to terminate the baby.”
“You know, things are set up in such a way that the person in the world who has the greatest interest in protecting the baby is mother,” Carson continued. “We’ve allowed layers of division to make mothers think that that baby is their enemy, and they have a right to kill it. Can you see how perverted that line of thinking is?”
When Todd asked if women should have the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, Carson said simply, “No.”
After quietly allowing that unambiguous one-syllable response to stand on its own for a bit, and taking account of Todd’s flustered body language, Carson elaborated: “Think about this. During slavery – and I know that’s one of those words you’re not supposed to say, but I’m saying it – during slavery, a lot of the slave owners thought that they had the right to do whatever they wanted to that slave. Anything they chose to do. What if the abolitionists had said, ‘I don’t believe in slavery. I think it’s wrong. But you guys do whatever you want to do.’ Where would we be?”
(Carson’s jibe about “words you’re not supposed to say” is a callback to an earlier portion of his Meet the Press interview, in which he was criticized for bringing up Nazi Germany in current political discussions.)
When Todd asked for a definitive answer on whether Carson wanted to see Roe v. Wade overturned, Carson began by discussing the importance of nominating judges who would interpret the Constitution faithfully. “I would like to see it done in the right way,” he said. “And I think that means when when we appoint judges, we need to look at their record, and see what is their record of interpretation of the Constitution – How have they behaved? Who have they associated with? – rather than what they say in the interview.”
He didn’t hold back on where he wanted that process of Constitutional review to end up: the reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision. “Ultimately, I would love to see it overturned,” said Carson.
He didn’t just mean overturning Roe to throw abortion regulation back to the states. Asked if he wanted abortion made illegal nationwide, without exceptions, Carson replied, “I’m a reasonable person, and if people can come up with a reasonable explanation of why they would like to kill a baby, I’ll listen.”
Carson put that in the context of a carefully defined “life and health of the mother” permission for abortion, seeming aware that pro-life advocates fear a vaguely-defined exception could be stretched by activist doctors into permitting nearly all of them. He said true life-of-the-mother abortions were “an extraordinarily rare situation,” but when it legitimately occurs, “I believe there’s room to discuss that.”
On the subject of abortion for cases of rape and incest, Carson said, “I would not be in favor of killing a baby because the baby came about in that way. And all you have to do is go and look up the many stories of people who have led very useful lives, who were the result of rape or incest.”
To put these remarks in context, Carson has long been a supporter of such measures as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortion after 20 weeks, but it has been considered “unclear” if he wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade or sharply restrict abortion at the national level.
Carson’s pro-life position has led to charges of “hypocrisy” for referring patients who sought abortions to other doctors, and he has been charged with giving inconsistent answers about when life begins, at one point saying it “certainly” began “once the heart starts beating.” That point is reached quite a bit later than the moment of conception, obviously.
Another notable comment seemingly at odds with Carson’s position on Meet the Press was his August 2015 statement to Neil Cavuto of Fox News on rape and incest pregnancies. “In cases of rape and incest, I would hope that they would very quickly avail themselves of the emergency room,” Carson said on that occasion. “And in the emergency room, they have the ability to administer RU-486 or other possibilities before you have a developing fetus.”
In the past, Carson’s campaign has sought to draw a line between what the doctor personally advocates, what the law currently permits, and what he sees as popular consensus, which he wishes to change through persuasion rather than compulsion. Acknowledging either the current state of the law or popular opinion is not meant to indicate that Carson agrees with either, or would pass up the opportunity to change them, if he were in a position to do so.
That is the sort of position more easily maintained in a lengthy conversation, rather than a political campaign. In a conversation, one has plenty of time to illuminate the difference between personal convictions, ideal goals, and the current state of public affairs. In a political campaign, it is necessary to explicitly state such divisions clearly, so both supporters and adversaries know the difference, and concessions to reality are not interpreted as the surrender of ambition.
This is particularly important when the topic is abortion. Media culture acts as if there is only one correct position: abortion on demand at all times, for any reason.
Reporters treat this as the “default” opinion, and aggressively interrogate anyone who disagrees, looking for both bold statements they can turn into scare quotes, and fine points of disagreement that can be magnified into wedge issues among pro-lifers. There is nothing the media love better than getting pro-lifers into savage internal battles over something like exceptions for rape and incest, while shrugging off the most outrageous pro-abortion extremism from Democrats as unworthy of notice.
Carson did a fine job of distinguishing between personal goals and acknowledging both legal reality and public consensus in his Meet the Press interview, although of course that isn’t slowing down the flood of hyperventilating “CARSON COMPARES ABORTION TO SLAVERY!!!” headlines. (Why is it so outrageous for someone who wishes to shift the moral consensus of the nation to recall a prominent previous example of successful activism along those lines?)
This was also Carson’s latest encounter with a political problem afflicting those who are serious about respecting the Constitutional order. Our media culture tends to assume that when a politician expresses an ideal, he or she intends to use raw power to force that ideal upon the nation at the first opportunity – that’s what liberals do, after all. When a Constitutional conservative says he wants something like Roe v. Wade overturned, the assumption is that he’ll either do it by executive fiat – hence the inevitable warnings that President Ben Carson would instantly make abortion illegal during his first days in office. If he isn’t willing to accomplish his goals by executive fiat, we are supposed to assume he isn’t really serious about them.
Carson’s thoughts on how Roe v. Wade could actually be overturned are a realistic middle ground – he’s describing a process of persuasion and judicial restraint that would be difficult to complete even by the end of a vigorous two-term presidency. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying, or that presidential candidates are not intellectually serious when they propose great projects they could not personally complete.