More than 40 years after the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, in which abortion was legalised in the US, abortion remains a highly contested issue in American politics. This was clear in the tense exchange regarding abortion that occurred between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Republican counterpart Donald Trump during the final presidential debate last month.
Although Clinton and Trump’s policies on abortion differ, their policies broadly reflect their respective parties’ traditional stances on abortion post-Roe v. Wade. However, the approach taken to abortion by Clinton’s vice-presidential running mate Tim Kaine does not entirely fit with Clinton’s abortion policy.
The historical context
Records reveal that following the Supreme Court’s decision, the then US Republican President Richard Nixon declared he opposed abortion, except in cases of rape and ‘when you have a black and a white’. Thankfully, Nixon’s xenophobic support of abortion in cases of interracial pregnancies never became part of the official Republican standard on the issue. Nixon’s Republican presidential successors in office for the remainder of the century such as Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were pro-life and opposed abortion, except in cases of rape or to protect the life of the mother. During his tenure, Republican president George W. Bush was also strongly opposed to abortion.
On the Democratic side, while in office president Jimmy Carter, a practicing Southern Baptist evangelical, opposed abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother. His Democratic successors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were pro-choice. Bill Clinton and Obama’s approaches reflect the Democratic Party’s traditional stance on abortion post-1973.
Clinton and Trump on abortion
Hillary Clinton’s campaign website states that were she to become president, she would protect access to abortion and that the decision to have an abortion ‘should be made by a woman and her family’. Clinton reinforced her pro-choice stance during the final presidential debate via repeatedly proclaiming her support for Roe v. Wade.
Prior to running for the presidency, Trump identified as pro-choice. However, upon entering the presidential race, Trump switched to a pro-life position partially as the latter conforms to the Republican Party’s traditional stance regarding abortion. During the final presidential debate, Trump reiterated his pro-life stance.
The Kaine factor
Kaine is a devout Catholic and supports a woman’s right to choose. But he is personally opposed to abortion and supports the existing 1976 Hyde Amendment, which prevents US federal dollars funding abortion except in cases of rape or to protect the health or life of the mother. In contrast, Clinton seeks to repeal the Hyde Amendment to render abortion more accessible, particularly for women from low socio-economic backgrounds.
If Clinton wins the upcoming election, it is highly likely that she will attempt to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which may produce tensions between herself and Kaine. If Trump and his staunchly anti-abortion vice-presidential running mate Mike Pence win, it is highly likely that they will retain the amendment as it currently stands.
Moreover, if Clinton succeeds, she would almost certainly select a pro-choice justice to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy, thus bolstering pro-choice numbers among the already predominantly pro-Roe v. Wade justices. As for what a Trump victory means for the Supreme Court vacancy, during the final debate, Trump stated that if became president he would appoint a pro-life justice. Thus, a Trump presidency would render the makeup of the Supreme Court less socially progressive.
Olivia Tasevski holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) and a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, where she is currently a Politics tutor.