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The Pro-Life Case for Choice
Nikki Haley says abortion is a deeply personal issue. She’s right.
MANY REPUBLICAN POLITICIANS and conservative pundits are worried about abortion. In the fifteen months since the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the Dobbs case, overturning Roe v. Wade, they’ve seen this issue play a decisive role in the midterms and subsequent elections. Now, eyeing the polls, they fear that the GOP—in its haste to outlaw the procedure at the state and national levels—has overstepped public opinion. For guidance, some are turning to Nikki Haley, the presidential candidate and former South Carolina governor.
On Tuesday night, Sean Hannity enlisted Haley to coach the party on abortion. “What is your message to Republicans around the country, especially if they want to win in swing states?” he asked. The next morning on Fox & Friends, Ainsley Earhardt invited Haley to describe her position in more detail. “You gave a fabulous answer . . . that can attract the independents, that can even attract the Democrats,” said Earhardt, teeing her up.
What is Haley’s secret recipe? She says no woman should be jailed for getting an abortion. She says we should take the issue out of Washington, respect each woman’s personal experience, and let the people closest to the issue decide.
She’s right about these principles. And there’s a simple policy that would honor them. It’s called freedom of choice.
LIKE MANY OTHER CONSERVATIVES, Haley complains that Roe v. Wade gave distant government officials—specifically, the Supreme Court—too much power over family matters. “We don’t want unelected justices deciding something this personal,” she argued in a CNN town hall on June 4. “This is a personal issue for every woman and man in America.” On Aug. 25, Haley told radio host Guy Benson, “I was glad when I saw that [the issue] was sent back down to the hands of the people to let the people decide.”
But what, exactly, should the people decide? Haley refuses to say how late in pregnancy abortion should be allowed. On Saturday, she disowned the push for a federal prohibition on abortions early in the second trimester. “You put this ban of 15 weeks, and what does it do? It has everybody running from us,” she warned. On Wednesday, when Fox host Brian Kilmeade challenged her to draw a line—“What is your week?”—she ducked.
Instead, Haley says each state should make its own decision. On April 25, in a speech outlining her position, she observed that in the wake of Dobbs, “different people in different places are taking different paths. That’s what the founders of our country envisioned.” On Aug. 24, when a Bloomberg TV interviewer asked Haley to specify a gestational cutoff point for legal abortion, she replied: “I’m for whatever the states decide.”
This is an important distinction among the Republicans running for president. Haley is acknowledging that the debate isn’t just about whether women can have abortions. It’s about who gets to make that decision. Other candidates, such as Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence, want a federal abortion ban to override the wishes of liberal states. Haley disagrees. At the state level, she’s for choice.
Why does Haley believe that states, rather than the federal government, should decide the issue? Because they’re closer to the people. In a Fox interview on Aug. 24, she explained: “I would much rather have laws decided by the people, you know, on the ground than by D.C.”
But if decisions are better made by people “on the ground,” that raises the next question: Who’s closer to the facts of each case than the pregnant woman herself? Who knows her circumstances better than she does?
Haley recognizes that every pregnancy is different. “Just like I have my story, I respect everyone who has their story,” she said in her speech in April. “I don’t judge someone who is pro-choice any more than I want them to judge me for being pro-life.” Instead of “judging each other,” she proposed, we should “treat [abortion] as the important and deeply personal issue it is.”
All of this wisdom points toward a policy of deference. Morally, to varying degrees, abortion troubles nearly all of us. But since every woman has her own story and her own circumstances, she’s the person best positioned to make the decision.
SO WHY DOESN’T HALEY embrace that policy?
There’s an obvious political answer: A candidate for the Republican presidential nomination isn’t likely to buck the party on its opposition to abortion rights.
But let’s posit that Haley is sincerely pro-life. She views abortion, in most cases, as morally wrong. And she believes that this moral view is incompatible with a pro-choice policy.
This assumption of incompatibility is pervasive among pro-lifers, and it’s mistaken.
If you think abortion is strictly equivalent to murdering a child, then yes, you should support banning it. But in that case, you should also punish it the way we punish murder. And if you’re not willing to punish it that way—by jailing the woman who hired the murderer—then maybe, on reflection, you don’t think it’s literally murder. Maybe you just think that it’s morally grave and ought to be avoided.
In that case, consider this option: You can be anti-abortion and pro-choice. Most people, to some extent, are both.
Roe illustrates the point. In her speech in April, Haley asserted that Roe “forced unlimited abortion on an unwilling nation.” In her CNN town hall, she claimed that Roe “said abortion anytime, anywhere, for any reason. And all Americans had to succumb to that.”
That’s not true. Roe stipulated, “If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period,” except “where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.” Roe also conceded that after the first trimester, “a State may regulate the abortion procedure to the extent that the regulation reasonably relates to the preservation and protection of maternal health.”
After the 1992 Casey ruling, which threw out Roe’s trimester framework, states could still regulate abortion after the point of fetal viability—with the same exception about “the life or health of the mother” in “appropriate medical judgment.” So the scope of abortion rights, as defined by Roe and Casey, was never “unlimited” or “anytime, anywhere, for any reason.” And states did pass laws restricting abortion in various ways.
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Haley could argue, as many pro-lifers did during the Roe and Casey era, that the “appropriate medical judgment” exception was a huge loophole allowing abortions at any stage of pregnancy so long as an abortion provider thought a woman’s “wellbeing” (which could be defined even in gauzy “emotional” or “familial” terms) was threatened. This was technically true but misleading, since abortions late in pregnancy were very rare and usually related to severe medical risks to the fetus or the woman.
But the larger point is that Roe didn’t “force” abortion on anyone. Under a policy of choice, everyone is free to choose life.
Pro-lifers have every right to promote a message of life and to offer assistance, through public or private means, so more women can carry pregnancies to term. A truly pro-choice policy welcomes that kind of assistance and opposes any kind of coercion—including coercion to have an abortion, which is all too common. “There is broad political agreement that we should never pressure moms into having an abortion,” Haley observed in her speech in April. Pro-choice Americans—those who defend abortion as an option, not as a preferred outcome—are part of that consensus.
A POLICY OF FREE CHOICE is also compatible with working to reduce the abortion rate.
In her speech, Haley noted, “It was not too long ago when President Bill Clinton said he wanted abortion to be ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ Few Democrats say ‘rare’ anymore.” She’s right about that. But some Democrats are willing to say it. Jared Polis, the governor of Colorado, made this point in a CNN interview on July 23:
You start with the common ground on something like abortion choice. Democrats don’t believe that abortion is good. We believe it’s bad, it should be minimized. How do you prevent unwanted pregnancies? What techniques do you use to make sure that people are empowered with the information they need to not become pregnant unless they choose?
Polis is correct. Every abortion is a tragedy, because every woman who ends up getting an abortion—if she had known beforehand that this would be the outcome—would have preferred not to get pregnant in the first place. To the extent that birth control averts such tragedies, it’s pro-choice and pro-life. The best birth-control methods are demonstrably effective in preventing abortions.
You have to decide whether you care more about preventing abortions or about deferring to right-wing opponents of contraception. Most social conservatives now accept contraception. But some still resist it, and Haley sometimes caters to these resisters. When she lists the points of consensus in abortion policy, she almost always mentions, as she did in her April speech, that “contraception should be more available.” But in a speech to the Faith & Freedom Coalition on June 24 and in another appearance before the same group just last week, she omitted that item from her list.
That’s not a coincidence. It’s a sign that the Republican coalition is ill suited to work constructively on this issue. If you’re interested in reducing the abortion rate—as opposed to passing laws that drive the procedure underground or to other states—you’ll get more effective help from the pro-contraception left than from the anti-contraception right.
LIKE MOST PRO-LIFERS, Haley opposes criminal punishment for women who choose abortion. In fact, she told Benson that “no state law should say any woman who’s had an abortion is going to go to jail.”
That’s not a states’ rights position. It’s certainly not an abortion-is-murder position. You can argue, by invoking nuance, that it’s still pro-life. But if you really believe that no state should jail a woman for having an abortion, the simpler policy to advocate is choice.
A pro-choice policy won’t give you the satisfaction of decreeing an end to abortion. It will challenge you to find other ways to prevent abortions, by working with women, not against them. But it will honor the principles Haley articulates. It will respect the personal nature of this issue. And it will leave the decision to the people who are closest to it.