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In VP debate, Ryan says Congress, not courts should decide abortion rights

In the vice presidential debate Thursday, Paul Ryan said he would prefer to hand the matter of abortion over to Congress, instead of the courts.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) during the vice presidential debate at Centre College Oct. 11, 2012, in Danville, Ky.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) during the vice presidential debate at Centre College Oct. 11, 2012, in Danville, Ky.

In the second to last question of the vice presidential debate Thursday, the topic of abortion, a contentious issue this election season, was put to the candidates in terms of their faith.

Moderator Martha Raddatz asked the two vice president candidates how religion has played a role in their views on abortion rights. Although both men are Catholics, a religion that does not believe in abortion, it is well-known that Republican Congressman Paul Ryan would like to see an end to abortion, while Vice President Joe Biden believes the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision should stand and continue to protect women’s right to the procedure.

Biden said he accepts his church’s “judgment…in my personal life,” but not in policy matters.

“I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others,” he said. “I do not believe that we have the right to tell other people, women, that they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor, in my view. And the Supreme Court. I’m not going to interfere with that.”

Nearly half the country seems to follow similar thinking to Biden in terms of abortion. The most recent Gallup poll on the subject found that while more Americans identify personally as pro-life than ever before (50% vs. 41% pro-choice), they continue to support the legality of abortion as an option. Only 20% believe abortion should be illegal in all cases, while 52% say it should remain legal under certain circumstances, and 25% believe it should be legal under any circumstances — meaning 77% agree that abortion should remain legal.

Ryan asserted he would prefer to hand the matter over to Congress so it can legislate away the rights upheld by the Supreme Court several decades ago.

“We don’t think that unelected judges should make this decision,” he said. “People, through their elected representatives and reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination.”

Biden zeroed in on that comment to remind abortion rights supporters of the stakes in this election on the issue of abortion.

“The next president will get one or two Supreme Court nominees. That’s how close Roe v. Wade is,” he said. “Do you think he’s likely to appoint someone like [Antonin] Scalia or someone else on the court, far right, that would outlaw…abortion? I suspect that would happen.”

Ryan said his faith was “a factor, of course,” in his beliefs on abortion but that “reason and science” also influenced his position. He then described an emotional personal moment.

“I think about 10 ½ years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born for our seven-week ultrasound for our first-born child, and we saw the heartbeat,” he said. “Our little baby was in the shape of the bean, and to this day, we have nicknamed our first-born child ‘Bean.’”

Ryan then went on to describe how he believes “life begins at conception.”  Enforcing that belief into policy has resulted in the push (but failure) of so-called “personhood” amendments, which Ryan has supported in the past.

The congressman was quick to follow-up with the campaign’s official abortion stance by saying that a “Romney administration will be to oppose abortion with the exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.”

Earlier this week Mitt Romney caused a stir when he said, “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”

The Romney-Ryan campaign quickly backtracked and reaffirmed that the Republican candidate would in fact support anti-abortion legislation that came to his desk. Later, Romney himself reaffirmed his “pro-life” candidacy.

Ryan also tried to paint the Democratic Party as abortion-happy, as if it was pushing for more abortions.

“The Democratic Party used to say they want it to be safe, legal, and rare,” he said. “Now they support it without restriction and with taxpayer funding, taxpayer funding in Obamacare, taxpayer funding with foreign aid.”

Ryan also attacked the Obama administration for Obamacare “infringing upon our first freedom, the freedom of religion.”

“Our church should not have to sue our federal government to maintain their religious – religious liberties,” Ryan said referencing a mandate within the new health care law that insists insurance plans cover contraception.

After outcry from religious groups, the administration created an exemption for religious organizations so that they do not directly pay for contraception but the health plan would still offer it to women.

Because of the contentious nature of abortion in this country, particularly in religious communities, laws such as the Hyde Amendment prevent federal dollars from going toward abortion services. Similar measures were taken when crafting the Affordable Health Care Act, aka Obamacare. In fact, it was President Obama that agreed to sign an executive order that reaffirmed a ban on federal funding of abortions as part of a compromise with anti-abortion House Democrats to get his health care bill passed.

Additionally, federal monies provided to clinics that serve low-income women, such as Planned Parenthood, are also not allowed to go toward the organizations’ abortion services if they offer them.  

The issue of abortion, and women’s rights in general, were not raised during the presidential debate on domestic policy last week.