Is Herman Cain ‘essentially pro-choice’?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Linking to a Washington Post column about Herman Cain’s abortion stance, the Post’s Aaron Blake provocatively tweeted: “Herman Cain is essentially pro-choice.”

But is he really? The answer to that is more complicated that you might believe.

As the Post notes,

Appearing on CNN’s Piers Morgan show Wednesday night, Cain said that while he personally believes that life begins at conception, and is against abortion in all circumstances, “it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make,” in cases of rape or incest.

It’s certainly true that Cain’s position seems to have shifted (the last time I checked, I thought his only exception was for the life of the mother?). The problem is that it’s hard to nail down exactly what his position is. It seems muddled. So I’m not even sure he is consciously advocating for these exceptions.

Cain went on to say, “It gets down to that family. And whatever they decide, they decide. I shouldn’t try to tell them what decision to make for such a sensitive decision.”

Isn’t that, fundamentally, the definition of pro-choice?

If Cain thinks that being personally pro-life (without wanting the government to protect the right to life) makes one pro-life — as he seems to imply — he would probably have to concede that John Kerry was, in fact, pro-life.

But let’s examine the question of exceptions. Assuming Cain is solidly pro-life — with only the exceptions of rape, incest, or the life of the mother — would that make him “essentially pro-choice”?

It might surprise some to learn that it would actually put him in line with most modern Republican presidential nominees, ranging from Bob Dole to President George W. Bush.

Were they “essentially pro-choice.”

Their liberal opponents certainly didn’t think so.

But a lot of pro-lifers would argue — yes! — they were, in fact, essentially pro-choice.

The debate over exceptions is one that most conservatives would just as soon not discuss. Today — perhaps because of ultrasound technology? — public opinion seems to be trending more and more pro-life.

At least, abstractly.

Troubles arise when someone presents a sob story (and I’m not using this term dismissively — bad things happen in the real world and that turns neatly-packaged philosophical positions into a messy business). Presented with an instance of, say, a rape, the politician advocating a strict pro-life position quickly transforms from being a noble William Wilberforceian-type defender of precious life — into a dictatorial scold who doesn’t care at all about the victim.

The argument for exceptions is that it is a politically palatable position — and that pro-lifers will ultimately win the public relations war, thus changing the culture, only incrementally.

The problem is, exceptions utterly undermine the key philosophical argument for being pro-life (which is why liberals love it as a wedge issue). If one believes that life is precious — that life begins at conception — and that abortion stops a heartbeat — then how can one justify it — even in the worst of cases? This is a conundrum that has long faced conservatives. And now, Herman Cain must confront it.

There are other practical reasons why strong pro-life advocates oppose exceptions. For example, what is to stop a doctor from simply saying he performed an abortion because he was worried about the life of a mother? This may sound conspiratorial, but these are the serious questions policy-makers must wrestle with.

The bottom line is this: Herman Cain’s new position (as interpreted by the Post) would be consistent with the positions espoused by most modern Republican presidential nominees. But at the same time — many pro-lifers would not be happy with it.

Matt K. Lewis