Rand Paul's Strange Abortion Incoherence in the Debate

By trying to straddle the federalism divide on abortion, his stance seems confusing and unconvincing to all sides.


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is a super chill guy on political stages such as tonight's debate, even when maybe he should be a bit more forceful in either his defense or attack. He was asked a question tonight by Chris Wallace in which his current abortion position was conflated with his father Ron Paul's.

"Your answer is to turn abortion back to the states the way it was before Roe v. Wade," Wallace told him. "Does that mean that if a liberal state, let's say, wants to make abortion legal, that you're okay with that and what do you say to conservative voters who believe deeply that abortion is murder?"

I expected him to begin his answer with a sharp, "Why Chris that's just not true! Why, just last week I introduced again into the Senate the "Life at Conception Act" which would give full federal protection to unborn life."

But he didn't do that at all. The introduction of that bill, and not for the first time, I assume matches his actual beliefs about what is politically appropriate to do about abortion. The bonus, and what I presumed was the reason it was announced so close to Iowa caucus, is that it also has  the political convenience of appealing to a mass GOP base, especially of the evangelical variety we are told is so important to Iowa.

So I assumed he would take this opening to loudly hype his proposed federal law that, by any interpretation I can give it, would ban abortion federally. (Though in a world with Roe v. Wade still in effect, it would be an instant lawsuit magnet if anything like it ever did become law.)

Instead here is how Paul answered. He didn't evade discussing the law, but he certainly blunted both its political efficacy and any clarity about his actual positions. Excerpts from Rand's somewhat rambling reply:

I've supported a variety of solutions, both state as well as federal. In fact, just last week, I introduced the Life at Conception act, which would say that the 14th amendment would defend an individual even in the womb.

Great! You've made your point for the GOP base that wants an anti-abortion guy. But wait, that's not all:

But I think on the broader question of religion and politics, you know, I think liberty, itself requires a virtue—requires a virtuous people. In fact, Washington said that democracy requires a virtuous people.

Os Guinness, the theologian, said that liberty requires restraint but the only restraint consistent with liberty is self-restraint. There's a lot packed into that statement. But the bottom line is we must have virtue, we must have a religious bearing as a nation. The government is not always going to save us and it's not always going to come from government.

But if we don't know right and wrong, I think we have lost our way. I think we become unmoored and I think without the religious foundation that guides us all, I think we have a great risk of going horribly in the wrong direction.

That's a great idea for him to get out there, one supposes. The libertarians, and even a certain strain of religious folk, like that idea that government can't be the key to enforcing religious virtue. 

Wallace was understandably confused by the "state as well as federal" line and then probably driven off the right track by all that talk about virtue not coming from government in the context of an abortion question.

Wallace hits him again: "Do you favor the idea that abortion should be a states' rights issue and if a liberal state wants to make it legal, that that's their choice? Yes or no?"

And then, on this issue in which equivocation has some severe political hazards, Paul flat out replies with a technically in some ways correct but pretty misleading answer:

Both. No, both the federal and a state approach. I have said that we could leave it to the states but I've also introduced a federal solution as well. So the federal solution would be the Life at Conception act which is an act that would federalize the issue. But I've also said for the most part, these issues would be left back to the states….

I think it would be better the more—the less abortions we have, so the more states that we have that made abortion illegal, the better, as far as trying to save and preserve lives.

It's hard to imagine a more wishy-washy evasive sounding answer than starting the answer to a "yes or no" question with "both."

What might he have been thinking, likely blunting any possible political benefit to a law he's twice introduced and seems proud enough of? He seems to want libertarians, constitutionalists, and federalists to understand both that he doesn't think religious virtue can in general be enforced by the federal government, and that he believes in state solutions as much as possible even when virtue and the law might meet. 

That's an interesting insight into his general philosophy, but it is a bit blunted in the specific case of abortion by the fact that he does advocate a federal law that would in essence outlaw it.

So he ended up with a message that came across incoherent on the whole, and never seemed to to actually effectively and finally answer the question in a way that the very voter for whom the Life at Conception Act would be appealing would actually understand what he was saying. 

Who knows what if any importance this exchange in the debate will have, but he seemed to take an opportunity to defend and explain one of his own legislative goals and get whatever political goodwill that might engender from the relevant community, and at best complicated it and at worst ruined it.

A somewhat frustrating example of a guy who doesn't often seem like he's equivocating or trying to be all things to all people seeming very literally to be doing that, in a confusing way that might unnerve both pro- and anti-abortion folk.

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  1. Bury the abortion thread in the late-night articles. Genius. This one’s not seeing 1000, that’s for sure!

  2. I think it might have done him some good.

    He was above Rubio by a hair earlier but now seems to have slipped back some.

    Of course this may also mean that Rubio staffers are voting faster than Rand’s.

  3. There’s a small, cynical part of me that wishes he’d said something like “I’d like abortion to be just as safe, legal, and rare as clitoridectomies are here in the U.S.”

    1. *see? perfect example of what i mean below.

      Boil your view down to a simple statement. tho i think the term ‘clitorectomies’ would be lost on many.

  4. Seriously. Both abortion and federalism are obviously things he *genuinely* cares about

    Trying to reconcile these things on a debate stage as a candidate however, is epic stupidity. he needed to get his shit straight and his pitch line bone-stupid-and-simple on the subject over a year ago.

    1. This is just epic fail.

      This stuff obviously is important to him but he hasn’t managed to cobble together a coherent position on it.

  5. It’s been thirty-three minutes without another debate article.


    1. Here’s a point of view that wasn’t expressed in tonight’s debate,
      this letter-to-the-editor from today’s SF Bay Area’s Contra Costa Times:

      I resent the patriarchal, racist, systematic oppression upon which our society’s been built. I resent that black lives are taken every day by police without consequence; that parents and children are wrongfully deported to countries like El Salvador, where conditions are so dangerous even the Peace Corps doesn’t operate there; and that indigenous people make 59 cents for every dollar a white man makes.

      I resent that wealthy white men can commit crimes with little consequence, while young people of color are arrested for the most minor of offenses. I resent that old white men have so many rights in this country, while others have so few.

      That’s what we youthful “progressives,” with our fondness for hyperbole, mean when we say “I hate old white men.” Do we hate every old white man? No (although I do have a long list). We resent the oppression they perpetuate and from which they benefit.

      This isn’t “hate speech.” We don’t want discrimination against old white men. We just don’t want them to discriminate against us.

      Rachel Boyle
      San Ramon

      1. Cool, just threw up in my mouth.

      2. Wonder if this logic can be used to force reconsideration of Hillary. “How come when a young black man (Jeffrey Alexander Sterling) acts as a whistleblower to expose a deeply flawed US Covert Operation, he gets indited for exposing state secrets, while when a rich, elderly, white woman gets to run for PRESIDENT after either willfully or through incompetence exposing state secrets without so much as a slap on the wrist??”

        Sure, the issue really shouldn’t be racialized, and it’s stretching logic to call Sterling “young”, but if framing Clinton’s crimes in the context of “white privilege” gets people to pay attention to the crimes, maybe there is something to that.

      3. Ya, Whitey is da Devil!

        Heard it before, racist slaver.

  6. I wish he’d shutup about abortion generally or just say something like “I’m personally opposed to abortion but won’t impose these views on others.” Not sure why abortion always has to be the hill GOP candidates choose to die on.

    1. Opposing the murder of babies seems a good hill to die on.

      1. Religions differ on when the tissue blob becomes a baby.

      2. Not being a life support for someone else does not equal murder. Freedom means freedom to choose who gets to use your heart, liver, lungs, etc.

  7. For what it’s worth, Matthew Dowd thought Rand came out looking the best from this debate. Baby steps.

    1. The FiveThirtyEight staff also voted him the winner, and they usually just ignore the fact he exists.

  8. it would have been much better for him to have answered, “I am prolife and as such anything option with in the law as it is now I support. Sometimes that is federal, sometimes that is at the state leave …..” The problem is that libertarians have been lukewarm on him from the get go and it is largely this issue that makes them so. Some libertarians believe to be a libertarian you have to be pro-choice. Besides being wrong and dogmatic it probably be a reason we won’t see a libertarian president.

    1. As far as separation of powers goes he doesn’t see care – he just wants his way

  9. Women who commit abortion should get life in prison. It is premeditated murder. Same for any one personally involved.

    1. Someone forgot their sarc tag.

      1. Well no. I’m just being consistent with the pro life view. However, most pro-life folks find my logical extension of their statements extreme.

        What they prefer is “misdemeanor murder and the initiator goes free.” A very serious crime no doubt.

    2. While I agree that abortion is murder, nobody gets life for premeditated murder for a first offense without aggravating circumstances. If you just kill a guy you dont like and he instantly painlessly dies, you get 25 years (in CA, to use my state for example (CA penal code section 190). A woman getting abortion would not pass the threshold for automatic life. The “doctor” performing the abortion would automatically get life, with consideration for the death penalty, again applying that section due to the use of poison to kill the baby.

      Which isnt enough punishment for the sick fucks that make a business out of industrially murdering unborn children.

      They need to be forced to work hard labor until they pay off their medical student loan at convict labor wages. If they manage to pay it off, they need to be rowed out into international waters and dumped overboard. Scum like abortion “doctors” have no place in civilisation.

      1. “Aggravating circumstances”? Babies are helpless. We need to get serious. And serious means jailing for very long periods the initiators of the crime. Women. No mercy.


        If the laws are enforced a black market will evolve.

        We don’t have near enough black markets in the US.

        And of course we will need Vagina Police. Some one has to keep women from misusing their vaginas.

      2. Women are free to control their end of the umbilical cord. The fetus is free to find somewhere else to incubate if they don’t like it.

        1. Go peddle this horseshit elsewhere, you dissembling shitweasel.

          The women getting the abortions arent Mary the fuckin mother of Jesus. God the Father didnt reach down from heaven and put those babies inside them.

          They fucking spread their legs and took a chance. Sex has the possible outcome of pregnancy no matter WHAT precautions you take short of sterilisation. If some woman chooses to take that risk and loses the gamble, thats on HER. Sometimes when you make choices, the outcome is not what you prefer. If that outcome is a human life, you absolutely MUST allow it to be born. anything else IS depraved murder

          1. So you are pro-slavery. Got it.

    3. No, women who get abortions have been punished enough.

      1. Then laws are superfluous.

  10. If you believe like Rand does, that before the rest of the rights of the constitution, and separation of powers delegated to the states, vs. the federal government… before those powers, are the rights of the individual, and the most basic right of the individual for the RIGHT TO LIFE, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…

    So, it is not ambiguous or incoherent, that by whatever method that can be achieved, to advocate for this RIGHT TO LIFE for all individuals, by either National law, or “state’s rights”

    So, to the author, I don’t understand why you are confused? Should I just assume that you do not believe that someone has “life” or is not a “person” while in the womb?

  11. Agreed with Doherty’s comments completely in re: to the abortion question in the debate. Also completely oppose the LACA in general. Discussed on our “Rand Pauluses and Minuses” podcast. This is an affront to states’ rights, women’s rights and also would drive women top back alley abortion clinics. Full thoughts: http://lionsofliberty.com/2016/01/27/179/

  12. This was Rand being completely unprincipled as far as the separation of powers.

    He wants his way to win by any means necessary. It doesn’t matter to him who has the power as long as he gets the results he wants.

  13. The author’s claim that the Life at Conception Act would federally ban abortion is highly misleading. What that law would do is overturn Roe v. Wade and send the abortion issue back to the states as it was prior to 1973. It could be looked at as a federal solution, but one which removes the federal government from the issue and allows states to write their own abortion laws.

    I know this specifically because I used to work for The National Pro-Life Alliance (a non-profit specifically pushing the LCA above all else). We were supposed to keep it on the down low with our members that passing the LCA would not mean a federally enforced end to abortion but a return of the issue to the states where they could come up with their own abortion laws. Perhaps Reason should look into the law next time before making these blanket assumptions.

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