Abortion, often the focus of angry disputes, was on Thursday night the subject of one of the most sober, even thoughtful, exchanges of the vice presidential debate.
Debate moderator Martha Raddatz on Thursday asked Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, about their positions on abortion, and with two Catholics on stage for the first time, she stressed that they “talk personally” about how their religion affects that stance.
In a rare and brief quiet moment in the debate, the men obliged.
Ryan told the story of seeing an ultrasound of his first child, weeks after conception, at Mercy Hospital in Janesville, Wis. She looked like a bean, Ryan said. And that’s her nickname to this day.
“Now, I believe that life begins at conception,” he said.
Biden, speaking quietly, said he’s a practicing Catholic. He accepts his church’s opposition to abortion, he said, “in my personal life.”
“But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews,” he said. “I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the congressman.”
The exchange neatly summarized part of the debate roiling within the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S., with the men landing on opposite sides. Biden stressed his concern for caring for the vulnerable -- the Catholic social doctrine -- while Ryan held firm to his belief that life begins at conception.
But it was clear the candidates were aiming to reach far beyond Catholic viewers. Female voters are in a position to decide the victor in November, and both men were playing for those votes as they cast their positions as middle-of-the-road.
Ryan emphasized that the GOP ticket supports exceptions to its antiabortion stance -- for rape, incest and life of the mother. He suggested that Democrats had moved away from moderate positions on abortion and contraception and trampled on religious freedom with new rules requiring insurance coverage for contraception.
“Our church should not have to sue our federal government to maintain their religious liberties,” he said.
But Ryan didn’t answer directly whether abortion rights supporters should be “worried” about a Romney administration.
“We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision, [but] that people, through their elected representatives and reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process, should make this determination,” he said.
Biden reminded the audience that before joining the ticket, Ryan’s position did not allow abortion for victims of rape and incest. He charged bluntly that Romney would appoint Supreme Court justices that would vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
“Keep an eye on the Supreme Court,” Biden told viewers.
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