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Biden, Ryan spar over abortion rights

Vice presidential candidates Paul Ryan and Joe Biden laid out two starkly different positions on abortion rights at Thursday night’s heated Kentucky debate,

Vice presidential candidates Paul Ryan and Joe Biden laid out two starkly different positions on abortion rights at Thursday night’s heated Kentucky debate, despite the candidates shared faith and personal beliefs.

The candidates, both practicing Catholics, each stated that they believe life begins at conception, but Vice President Biden made clear in his remarks that he felt his personal beliefs should not be imposed on all Americans of different faiths.

“Life begins at conception, that’s the Church’s judgement, I accept it in my personal life,” said Biden.  “But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians, and Muslims, and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others.”

Rep. Ryan, by contrast, offered a more extreme position that played to his base using buzzwords John Heilemann flagged as “conservative filigree” during Hardball's post-debate discussion.

“We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision,” responded Ryan to moderator Martha Raddatz’s question about the legality of abortion.  “People through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination.”

In other words, a Romney-Ryan administration would advocate a state-by-state approach, whereby every state could decide via electoral process how extensive or restrictive abortion rights would be for its constituency, thereby making the banning of abortion a matter of geography.  Statewide abortion bans could become so prevalent that women could be forced to travel as far as halfway across the country to get an abortion in a state where that decision would be respected.

If Ryan seemed somewhat ambivalent while arguing his position, the reason is undoubtedly because he has had to reel in his own, more extreme beliefs on abortion rights to conform to those of Governor Romney’s.  Personally, Ryan is a staunch anti-abortion advocate, even in cases of rape, and he is a co-sponsor of a controversial “personhood” bill called the Sanctity of Life Act, which would grant all the legal and constitutional privileges of personhood to every fetus from the moment of fertilization onward.  The implications of such an amendment would not only outlaw abortion, but make it murder, as well as potentially criminalize certain instances of miscarriage.

“If a woman was pregnant, say a month pregnant, and decided she wanted to go run a marathon, and as a result had a miscarriage, she could be charged with negligent homicide under this law,” said Ron Reagan on Hardball Friday.  He went on to say, “Certain kinds of contraception would be illegal under this law.  Women who had abortions would be murderers under this law.  That is the sort of thinking that animates Paul Ryan.”

Romney’s stance on abortion rights, however, is a bit more muddled than that of his hard-lined running mate, which puts Ryan in the awkward position of having to advocate a policy position he neither fully supports, nor arguably fully understands.  Romney has gone back and forth on the issue of abortion for his entire political career, first debuting as a pro-abortion rights candidate in his 1994 bid for Senate, although his acceptance of an endorsement from Massachusetts Citizens for Life, and anti-abortion group, left an opening for his opponent Ted Kennedy to famously accuse Romney of being “multiple choice” on abortion.  He then campaigned for and won the 2002 election for Massachusetts governor as a pro-abortion rights candidate.

But in 2005, Governor Romney vetoed a bill that would give emergency contraception to rape victims.  By 2007, Romney was running for president as a self-professed “convert” to the anti-abortion rights cause.  Officially, Romney’s current position is that he opposes abortion except in the cases of rape, incest, or where the health of the mother is in jeopardy.  But his statements make it difficult to predict what kinds of actions he would take as president.  On Tuesday, Romney told an Iowa paper that his agenda included no abortion legislation, but then his campaign spokesperson backtracked, telling the Associated Press that “Mitt Romney is proudly pro-life, and he will be a pro-life president.”

Ryan may have had a difficult time trying to synch his position on abortion with Romney’s, which has wandered all over the map for the last 20 years.  And that inability to articulate a fully fleshed-out policy position on abortion rights may cost the Romney-Ryan ticket the women’s vote.

As Alex Wagner put it on Friday’s Hardball, “This is fundamentally the question of whether women have the right to choose, and Paul Ryan could not answer the question.  And to many, many women on both sides of the aisle, this is something that you vote on.”