Opinion: Does Hillary still think abortion should be ‘safe, legal and rare’?

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks Monday at the Des Moines Area Rapid Transit Central Station in Des Moines.

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks Monday at the Des Moines Area Rapid Transit Central Station in Des Moines.

(Charlie Neibergall / AP)

Taking as its text the controversy over the surreptitious video recording of Planned Parenthood officials discussing donations of fetal tissue, The New York Times is reporting that Republicans are altering their “script” on abortion.

Advised by media-savvy pro-life activists, candidates such as Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are focusing in positive terms on the humanity of the unborn. For example, Rubio said ultrasounds of his offspring showed that “they were children — and they were our children.” Rand Paul recalled watching fetuses suck their thumbs.

I’m not sure this is a totally new tack, but even if it is Republicans are only one part of the political universe. It’s also interesting to contemplate how the controversy over the Planned Parenthood videos – and the way they have been used to challenge pro-choice complacencies – might affect the leading Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

So far Clinton has been protective of Planned Parenthood, characterizing the sting video as part of a “concerted attack” on “a woman’s right to choose.” She also noted that “Planned Parenthood has apologized for the insensitivity of the employee who was taped and they will continue to answer questions for Congress and others.”

But, as the NYT noted, it took Clinton several days to respond to the uproar over the video. That may be because, despite her support for Planned Parenthood, she has not identified herself as a pro-choice purist.


In 2008, Clinton agreed with a questioner that Americans on both sides of the abortion issue should work together to try to reduce the number of abortions to zero. Clinton reminded her questioner that she thought abortion should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare I mean rare.

She also said abortion “should not be in any way 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 pastor.” (You can watch the video here.)

Contrast the tone of Clinton’s remarks with this statement from the author Katha Pollitt in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last year: “There is a tremendous amount of stigma around abortion that has multiple sources. It has: ‘Oh, my God, I had sex.’ ‘I chose myself instead of choosing the future baby.’ ‘I “made a mistake” by having sex with that person.’ ”

Whether pro-life and pro-choice activists can actually achieve common ground is doubtful (as I wrote here).Take Clinton’s suggestion in 2005 that pro-choice and pro-life Americans unite around the agenda of preventing unwanted pregnancies, an agenda she said must include “increasing access to family planning services.” Given their nervous breakdown over the Hobby Lobby case, what are the chances that the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops will sign on to that?

But the fact that common ground may prove elusive doesn’t mean that Clinton has given up trying to create it. But, as with other issues on which she has moved to the left, perhaps she’ll also decide that her old mantra of “safe, legal and rare” is too 2008.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3