Source: Theology That Sticks
March 3, 2016
President Bill Clinton gave Americans a mantra to chant whenever the abortion debate raged. “[A]bortion should not only be safe and legal,” he said at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, “it should be rare.”
The phrase “safe, legal, and rare” goes back to his 1992 campaign, an example of the rhetorical triangulation for which he was famous.
There was a kind of genius to it. Clinton’s mantra offered a way for Americans to keep abortion legal, while saying they didn’t much approve of it. It was like a moral “safe space” for the debate. You can avoid the controversy by embracing a paradox: I’m for it and against it at the same time.
But you can sit comfortably in a paradox for only so long, and the walls of this safe space are crumbling fast.
Safe, legal, but not too rare
Abortion clinics around the country are shuttering at record speed. Some of the closures are from decreased demand. But many are the result of stricter state regulations.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of such regulations right now. Since 1992 states have been free to regulate abortion so long as their regulations do not effectively deny women access. The question in the present case is whether Texas’s abortion laws do that.
They probably do. And that points to the problem with the “safe, legal, and rare” position. These regulations were passed in the name of making abortion safer. Abortion is still legal. But the regulations are also making abortion harder to come by.
Safe, legal, but just too rare for some.
When Hillary was pro-life
Abortion advocates have long frowned at the inclusion of “rare” in the mantra, going back to when Clinton first uttered it. But it’s an essential ingredient for the triangulation to work.
Hillary Clinton stressed the point in a 2005 speech. “[W]e can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women,” she said before discussing how to reduce the number of abortions.
Andrew Sullivan praised the speech at the time. “There were two very simple premises to Clinton’s argument,” he said: “a) the right to legal abortion should remain, and b) abortion is always and everywhere a moral tragedy. . . . Hers is, in that respect, a broadly pro-life position.”
Pro-life?! The strain was too much for the paradox to bear.
On the campaign trail today, Hillary refers to the desire to keep abortion “safe and legal.” Curiously absent are references to “rare.”
We’re lying to ourselves
Clinton seems now to follow the lead of those abovementioned advocates who want abortions aplenty—at least to position herself as firmly pro-choice in the Democratic presidential primary. Will she bring back “rare” in the general?
If she does, it only shows the fundamental dishonesty behind “safe, legal, and rare.” The reality is that the people who want abortions to be legal and the people who want abortions to be rare are not the same people.
There may be millions in the middle who don’t want to take sides, who don’t want to wrestle with the morality of ending human life. They can keep chanting the mantra, but it rings less true today than ever before.