Buttigieg Won't Say if He Backs Northam on Late-Term Abortion

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Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who has positioned himself as a moderate, sparked a pro-life movement firestorm over the past 24 hours after a town-hall audience member Sunday confronted him on whether he is open to making language in the party platform more inclusive of pro-life Democrats.

The uproar is not dying down after the Buttigieg campaign on Monday declined to say whether the candidate supports a controversial 40-week abortion bill backed by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Northam’s stated support for allowing abortions to take place after an infant’s birth.

The Buttigieg campaign refused to say if the candidate's position differs from that of Northam or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed a bill last year that expands access to late-term abortions if the health of the mother is at risk or doctors believe the fetus in not viable. Northam faced a backlash over his comments, and both governors’ positions -- considered the most extreme abortion policies in the country, according to pro-life groups -- stirred weeks-long controversy in their respective states.

Asked directly whether Buttigieg’s abortion position is any different than that of Northam or Cuomo, campaign spokesman Chris Meagher said only that “I think he made his position clear in the town hall last night” and provided a transcript of Buttigieg’s exchange with Fox News anchor and moderator Chris Wallace.

Buttigieg’s comments Sunday night in Des Moines, Iowa, did not specifically address the laws expanding access to late-term abortions in Virginia and New York. Instead, pro-life Democrat Kristen Day asked the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., if he wanted the support of “people like me” and whether he would back a change in the Democratic Party platform language to show that it’s a “big-tent” party that welcomes pro-life members.

While he didn’t address the party platform question directly, Buttigieg said he supports the party’s existing position, which “unequivocally” supports all woman’s access to “safe and legal abortion” and explicitly states that the party will seek to overturn the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except to save the life of the mother or if the pregnancy arises from incest or rape. 

“I’m not going to try to earn your vote by tricking you. I am pro-choice, and I believe a woman ought to be able to make that decision,” he said. “The best I can offer is that if we can’t agree on where to draw the line, the next best thing we can do is agree on who should draw the line, and in my view it’s the woman who’s faced with that decision in her own life.”

Wallace, recognizing that Buttigieg was not addressing the party plank issue, asked if Day was satisfied with that response, and she clearly wasn’t.

“He didn’t answer the second part of my question, and the second part was: The Democratic platform contains language that basically says, ‘We don’t belong, we have no part in the party because it says abortion should be legal up to nine months, the government should pay for it,” Day said.

She then pointed out that in 1996 and several years afterward there was language in the Democratic platform that said “we understand that people have differing views on this issue but we are a big tent party that includes everybody.”

Buttigieg then indicated that he would not stray from party orthodoxy on abortion.

“I support the position of my party – that this kind of medical care needs to be available to everyone, and I support Roe v. Wade framework that holds that early in pregnancy there are very few restrictions and late in pregnancy there are very few exceptions.”

The answer did not sit well with pro-life leaders, fresh from last week’s March for Life in Washington, an annual event that President Trump attended this year, the first president ever to participate.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion nonprofit group Susan B. Anthony List, accused Buttigieg of “doubling down on abortion extremism.”

“Last night Mayor Buttigieg could not identify a single instance where he could limit abortion or even acknowledge room for debate on this issue within the Democratic Party,” she said. “The modern Democratic Party is the party of abortion on demand through birth, paid for by taxpayers, even infanticide.”

Abortion opponents point to recent polling that shows seven in 10 Americans, including 44% of Democrats, back abortion restrictions after the first three months. That polling, produced by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion and funded by the Knights of Columbus, surveyed 1,237 American adults earlier this month.

Carl Anderson, the CEO of the Knights of Columbus, penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed about the poll’s findings last week headlined “Waiting for a Moderate Democrat on Abortion.” The most recent survey finding, he wrote, is consistent with others over the past decade that show the vast majority of Americans oppose late-term abortion even if they want it to be legal at other points in pregnancy.

Nearly half of those who identify as pro-choice — 47% — support such restrictions, Anderson pointed out. Fewer than four in 10 Democrats support abortion at any time and for any reason, while 62% want some limitations on abortion and roughly half (49%) would limit abortion to the first three months of pregnancy.

After Buttigieg’s Sunday town hall, March for Life President Jeanne Mancini tweeted that she is “really saddened to see how out of touch D candidates are with mainstream America on life.”

Grazie Pozo Christie, a policy adviser with the Catholic Association, said the Democrats’ “aggressive stance on abortion makes them the party of exclusion, leaving countless Americans with moderate views in the cold.”

After the town hall, a Twitter storm ensued, with some abortion-rights proponents arguing that Democrats who personally wouldn’t get an abortion are welcome in the Democratic Party as long as they don’t impinge on the rights of others to have abortions or the party to expand access.

“Anyone, regardless of personal beliefs, is and always has been welcome in the party as long as they are not trying to exert control over others, with massive damaging effects,” tweeted Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Pete said as much in his answer.”

The abortion rights controversy comes as Buttigieg fights for votes and the fate of his underdog campaign just days away from the pivotal Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary nearly a week later. Buttigieg is in third place in both contests right now, behind Bernie Sanders, who’s in the lead in both states, with Joe Biden following in a close second place in Iowa and more distant second in New Hampshire.

With Buttigieg having declined to distance himself from Northam and Cuomo on late-term abortions, Biden is the only candidate in the field who has signaled support for legislation barring certain types of late-term abortions, according to the March for Life Action scorecard of the 2020 field. 

Others have said Biden’s position on late-term abortion is unclear after he surrendered to pro-choice activists last year and reversed his 40-year-long support for the Hyde Amendment, which he has said led him to vote no fewer than 50 times against federal funding of abortions. In his 2007 book, “Promises to Keep,” Biden said he’s been “stuck in the middle-of-the-road position on abortion for 30 years.”

Biden early last year tried to reaffirm his support for the Hyde Amendment, but some of his 2020 opponents for the Democratic nomination denounced him for it.

“There is #NoMiddleGround on women’s rights,” Sanders tweeted. “Abortion is a constitutional right.”

“No woman’s access to reproductive health care should be based on how much money she has. We must repeal the Hyde Amendment,” declared California Sen. Kamala Harris, who ended her presidential campaign late last year.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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