Opinion: If Tim Kaine was inconsistent on abortion, so was Mike Pence

Tim Kaine and Mike Pence appear at the vice presidential debate Oct. 4 at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.
(Chip Somodevilla / AFP-Getty)

It’s been four days since the debate between vice presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, and conservative Catholics are still irritated over what many liberal Catholics (and liberal non-Catholics) thought was one of Kaine’s finest moments.

Their indignation came in response to a question to both candidates about how they struggled to balance their personal religious faith and public policy.

Echoing the late Mario Cuomo in his famous speech at Notre Dame University in 1984, Kaine suggested that he could be personally opposed to abortion as a Catholic and still support Roe vs. Wade.

He then tried to turn the tables on Pence, who, he noted, had said he wanted to repeal the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.


“Governor,” he asked Pence, “Why don’t you trust women to make this choice for themselves? We can encourage people to support life. Of course we can. But why don’t you trust women? Why doesn’t Donald Trump trust women to make this choice for themselves?

“That’s what we ought to be doing in public life: living our lives of faith or motivation with enthusiasm and excitement, convincing other[s], dialoguing with each other about important moral issues of the day.”

Catholic critics weren’t impressed.


The Rev. Thomas Petri, dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told the Catholic News Agency that Kaine, the Democratic nominee, took a “gravely immoral” position in saying he personally opposed abortion while taking a pro-choice stance in public office.

At Breitbart, Thomas D. Williams wrote: “While Kaine offers lip service to being ‘personally opposed’ to abortion ( la Mario Cuomo), his words ring hollow to those who understand abortion to be a social evil that destroys the most vulnerable members of society. Being personally opposed to abortion is like being personally opposed to racism or wife-beating.”

There’s a superficial appeal to the idea that it’s contradictory for a politician to believe that a fetus is a life deserving of protection — a belief not confined to Catholics, by the way — and at the same time to oppose laws against abortion.

But if Kaine is guilty of inconsistency, so are Pence and many other “pro-life” politicians who draw the line at advocating punishment for women who have abortions.


At the debate, Pence, the Republican candidate, was put on the defensive when Kaine noted that Trump had said earlier in the campaign that women who had abortions should be punished (a statement the GOP presidential nominee later retracted). Pence insisted that “Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that punished women who made the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy.”

But why not? If abortion is murder, why shouldn’t a woman be punished for complicity in that crime? As I wrote at the time of Trump’s original “gaffe”:

“It defies logic to suggest that a person who initiates criminal act ought to be immune to punishment for it. At the minimum, the woman who seeks an abortion is an accessory to murder — if you believe abortion is murder.”

Now, there may be what Catholics call a “prudential” reason not to punish the woman — namely that there are more effective ways to discourage abortion.


But once you concede that point, you’re not far from Kaine’s preferred strategy of forsaking legal prohibition for “dialoguing with each other about important moral issues of the day” in the hopes that women will see that abortion is the wrong choice. Or Hillary Clinton’s 2008 strategy (not emphasized this year) of trying to make abortions “safe, legal and rare.”

Kaine and Pence are trying to have it both ways on abortion. They’re just being inconsistent in different ways.

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