Pollak: Democrats Have Abandoned Obama’s Language of Empathy on Abortion

Barack Obama at Saddleback (Justin Sullivan / Getty)
Justin Sullivan / Getty

Barack Obama was the most pro-choice president in the history of the United States. Yet as radical as his own policies were, Obama was capable of advocating his own views while articulating the pro-life argument and recognizing it as a legitimate point of view.

Today’s Democratic candidates for president have not only become more adamant in their pro-choice views, but have become totally intolerant toward the pro-life side, writing them off as anti-woman “extremists.”

Democratic front-runner Joe Biden has made the most dramatic shift in policy terms, abandoning what he once called a “middle of the road” approach that was skeptical of Roe v. Wade to an all-out defense of that fateful, controversial 1973 Supreme Court decision. He has also flip-flopped on the question of whether federal tax dollars should fund abortion, opposing the idea when he ran for president in 2007, and now supporting it through the repeal of the Hyde amendment.

Notably, Biden does not even try to express some understanding toward the pro-life position, and the view that a fetus might be a human being whose life society has a duty to protect. Other candidates are aggressively hostile toward the pro-life position. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, participating in a pro-choice protest at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, reportedly said recent abortion laws show the Republican Party had been overtaken by extremism.

Few used the word “extreme” to describe the radical bills recently passed in New York and Virginia, and being debated in other blue states, that “protect” abortion through the very moment of birth itself, completely rejecting the possibility that a near-term fetus that would otherwise be viable outside the womb could be worth saving.

Instead, Democrats and Planned Parenthood celebrated the passage of that new law vividly, with a standing ovation and shouts of delight.

Obama agreed with their position. In fact, as a state legislator in Illinois, he opposed legislation that would have saved babies who were born after botched abortions. He also opposed limits on partial-birth abortion.

As president, he was no different. He told Planned Parenthood — the country’s leading abortion provider — in 2013: “[A]s long as we’ve got to fight to protect a woman’s right to make her own choices about her own health, I want you to know that you’ve also got a president who’s going to be right there with you, fighting every step of the way. … Thank you, Planned Parenthood. God bless you.” His administration refused to allow Christian employers — including the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns who help the elderly — to opt out of a contraceptive mandate in Obamacare.

And yet when he spoke about abortion, he was careful to point out that the pro-life position was a valid one, at least on its own terms. Obama also strove to find common ground when he spoke about the issue to pro-life audiences, and appealed to his opponents to join him in finding ways to reduce overall abortions.

That tactic may have been little more than a debating trick: Obama notoriously used it on a variety of issues, from guns to trade, where he would articulate the other side’s view before going on to reject it completely. But Obama generally tried not to demonize the other side.

At the Saddleback Presidential Forum in 2008, conservatives seized on Obama’s infamous gaffe when he said the question of when life begins was “above my pay grade.” But Obama’s later comments are worth quoting:

But let me just speak more generally about the issue of abortion, because this is something obviously the country wrestles with. One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is that there is a moral and ethical element to this issue. And so I think anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue, I think, is not paying attention. So that would be point number one.

But point number two, I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade, and I come to that conclusion not because I’m pro-abortion, but because, ultimately, I don’t think women make these decisions casually. I think they — they wrestle with these things in profound ways, in consultation with their pastors or their spouses or their doctors or their family members. And so, for me, the goal right now should be — and this is where I think we can find common ground. And by the way, I’ve now inserted this into the Democratic party platform, is how do we reduce the number of abortions? The fact is that although we have had a president who is opposed to abortion over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down and that is something we have to address. … I am in favor, for example, of limits on late-term abortions, if there is an exception for the mother’s health. From the perspective of those who are pro-life, I think they would consider that inadequate, and I respect their views. One of the things that I’ve always said is that on this particular issue, if you believe that life begins at conception, then — and you are consistent in that belief, then I can’t argue with you on that, because that is a core issue of faith for you.

What I can do is say, are there ways that we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, so that we actually are reducing the sense that women are seeking out abortions. And as an example of that, one of the things that I’ve talked about is how do we provide the resources that allow women to make the choice to keep a child. You know, have we given them the health care that they need? Have we given them the support services that they need? Have we given them the options of adoption that are necessary? That can make a genuine difference.

Again, there was no reason to believe Obama meant anything he said: his purported support for “limits on late-term abortions,” like his support for traditional marriage, was easily cast aside once he was in office and no longer felt the need to mollify conservative criticism. But if his empathy was fictional, it was a noble lie — one that preserved the possibility of some kind of dialogue, and paid homage to the deep faith of Christian voters, in word if not in deed.

As president, Obama repeated this message in his controversial commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009. While he noted that his own position was staunchly pro-choice, he acknowledged that pro-choice advocates had occasionally used hurtful language towards the pro-life side: “How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without … demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?” he asked.

There is not one Democrat among the 23 presidential candidates who speaks with even superficial empathy for the pro-life position. That is partly Obama’s fault: despite his occasionally unifying rhetoric as a candidate, he often governed in divisive fashion. We still live with that legacy. But Obama, at least, understood that he at least had to acknowledge the complexity of issues like abortion if he wanted to be taken seriously as a national political leader.

The Democratic Party candidates today are preaching the radicalism Obama practiced, while casting aside the language of empathy he used. Perhaps that is for the best: it reveals what Democrats truly believe, not just about abortion but about intolerance.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


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