Opinion: Hillary Clinton tweaks her ‘safe, legal and rare’ abortion mantra

Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign stop Monday at Manchester Community College in Manchester, N.H.

Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign stop Monday at Manchester Community College in Manchester, N.H.

(Matt Rourke / AP)

Is Hillary Clinton recalibrating her position on abortion as she seeks the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination?

It sure looks that way. In her last presidential run in 2008, Clinton said that she thought abortion should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare, I mean rare.” She added that abortion “should not in any way be diminished as a moral issue,” and portrayed the choice to have an abortion as a wrenching one for “a young woman, her family, her physician and [her] pastor.”

But questioned on Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” about a claim by Sen. Marco Rubio that “she believes that all abortions should be legal, even on the due date of that unborn child,” Clinton replied: “You know, I’ve been on record for many years about where I stand on abortion, how it should be safe and legal and I have the same position that I’ve had for a very long time.”

So what happened to “rare”?

Perhaps this was a one-time alteration in her previous formula, and the next time Clinton addresses this question she’ll include the R word. It’s also fair to note that there was a slight echo of her earlier angst in her comments on “This Week”: She referred to late-term abortion as an “excruciating choice” often driven by “medical reasons.”

But there are other indications that not only the words but the music of her position on abortion have evolved in this campaign.


Not only has Clinton defended Planned Parenthood (whose political arm has endorsed her), she is emphasizing her opposition to the Hyde Amendment, the perennial rider to federal appropriations bills that prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except to save the life of the woman or to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.

Writing in The New Republic, Jamil Smith called Clinton’s opposition to the Hyde Amendment a “big deal.” Kierra Johnson, executive director of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity, told Slate: “We are thrilled that pro-choice champions are no longer accepting the Hyde Amendment as the status quo.”

Clinton’s opposition to the Hyde Amendment is notable because it departs from a political compromise that in the past appealed to some Democrats: Abortion would be legal but taxpayers wouldn’t be expected to pay for a procedure many of them found morally offensive. (As William Saletan has noted, these two positions can both be described as keeping the government out of the abortion decision.)

It’s likely that Clinton’s sharpening of her pro-choice stance will help her in the Democratic primaries. It might not be such an asset in a general election — in which (assuming she’s the nominee) she might rediscover “rare.”

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3