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Herman Cain Accidentally Shines Light On Republican Party’s Abortion Problem

The Republican establishment understandably sees Herman Cain as a problem. Cain has been leading the pack of presidential candidates in some polls, but the former Godfather's Pizza president is also seen as someone who, in the words of blogger Jonathan Bernstein, “can’t manage to put three sentences together on most topics without an embarrassing gaffe.” Bernstein offers Cain’s recent comments on abortion as the latest example. Earlier this week, Cain told CNN’s Piers Morgan, in an exchange about Cain’s views on abortion, that “it's not the government's role or anybody else's role to make that decision…So what I'm saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make…The government shouldn't be trying to tell people everything to do, especially when it comes to social decisions that they need to make.”

Now, it’s not entirely clear whether Cain meant the government should stay out of a woman’s decision whether to have an abortion, or whether he was trying to make a more subtle (which may be a euphemistic way to describe his meandering answer) point about what should happen when a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape or incest, but what’s interesting is how observers are analyzing his statement. The consensus is that, if Cain has a libertarian stance on abortion, then he cannot continue as a legitimate candidate—as Bernstein puts it, “Republicans certainly would never nominate anyone who was actually pro-choice.”

That’s the conventional wisdom—Cain committed a gaffe by suggesting government ought to stay out of personal decisions women make about their bodies. But, while everyone seems to be asking what this means for Cain’s somewhat quixotic candidacy, it ought to prompt another question: how can the Republican party reconcile its support for draconian anti-abortion laws with its anti-government, pro-individual freedom rhetoric. Here's the problem. On the one hand, the Republican party’s 2008 platform declares that: “We support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.” That seems pretty clear: the proposed human life amendment would declare a fetus (even a fertilized egg, in fact) to be a person, with life beginning at conception. Abortion, then, would be the taking of human life, homicide—a particularly brutal taking, in fact, “of innocent human life”, as the platform put it.


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Ok, so the Republican party is committed to defending innocent unborn fetuses against abortion, and seeks a constitutional amendment that would force abortion to be defined as a criminal act. But the Republican party is also committed to keeping government out of peoples’ lives. The Republican National Committee’s website contains this statement: “Republicans believe individuals, not government, can make the best decisions; all people are entitled to equal rights; and decisions are best made close to home.” What decision, one might reasonably ask, is made “closer to home” than a woman’s decision whether to terminate a pregnancy?

Political observers have been quick to declare that Herman Cain has a problem—how can he be the Republican party’s presidential nominee if he believes, or at least suggests, government shouldn’t make decisions for women when it comes to abortion? Cain might offer a pointed response: it’s the Republican party that has the problem. Cain is consistently applying the party’s libertarian rhetoric to intensely decisions women make about their health, their bodies, and their lives. The Republican party claims to believe that individuals, not government, make the best decisions—except when it comes to abortion (or marriage, for that matter). Cain may well be a problem for the party, but perhaps not in the way insiders think. His exchange with Piers Morgan takes the party’s rhetoric about individualism at face value. It’s the Republican party establishment that ought to be asked how they reconcile their position on abortion with their position on individual freedom.

Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor in American University's School of Public Affairs, Department of Government, where he teaches classes on constitutional law. He's also a lawyer and has published writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Lawyer, Common Dreams,, and Metroland (Albany, NY).

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