Has Ryan “Softened” His Pro-Life Views?

Brace yourself for the latest meme to hit the politosphere: the word is now that Paul Ryan has “softened” his views on abortion. Ryan has long opposed abortion in all cases save in a few cases where he believes it may be necessary to save the life of the mother. This means that he has opposed abortion in the case of rape. But in this post-Akin political environment, so the narrative goes, Ryan, in the interests of being a team player, is renouncing his opposition to rape exceptions.

What set this off? First there was the statement made by various Romney campaign spokespeople in the aftermath of Akin’s blunder:

“Gov. Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape”

Then there were Ryan’s responses to some reporters who were pressing him on the abortion/rape issue, and focusing particularly on some legislation he previously supported which made distinctions between different types of rape. Ryan said to the reporters:

“I’m proud of my record. Mitt Romney is going to be president and the president sets policy. His policy is exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. I’m comfortable with it because it’s a good step in the right direction.”

One the basis of one or both of these statements, major news outlets and some in the Catholic blogosphere are claiming that Ryan has “softened” his views on abortion. Or, to put it in Mark Shea’s words, Ryan has “partly renounce[d]” his position. In response to a comment I made on Mark’s blog, he elaborated further:

 I just don’t see how anybody can regard movement from “It is always gravely evil to deliberately kill innocent human life” to “I am opposed to the murder of innocent, unborn children except in cases my boss tells me not to be opposed,” or, “unless I feel it jeopardizes my chances of becoming VP” and maintain that Ryan is not compromising.

It is quite obvious to me that Paul Ryan has not said or done a thing to warrant the attribution of such cynical and selfish motives to him – though I do believe he, like most pro-life politicians and even people such as myself, is willing to compromise on a few points to make significant gains, a point I will elaborate on below. In any case, Mr. Shea goes too far. Because I often find his commentary to be fair-minded (even when I disagree), I am surprised at this rather unjustifiable attack on Ryan’s character but also willing to grant the benefit of the doubt. So I will offer my take on these comments and Mark can reply if he feels it’s worth his time.

I’ll start by noting that I have observed a lot of frustration among some Catholic friends of mine who have decided to support neither ticket and are adamant in their choice. The frustration is certainly understandable, since it is clear that the two-party system and the hyper-partisan bickering that defines American political discourse offer no solutions to the major problems facing the country. I respect the decision some have made to support neither candidate, though as I have made clear, I believe it is the wrong decision.

This frustration can manifest itself in healthy ways sometimes. I think Ron Paul’s candidacy, for instance, has been a fundamentally good thing for the country and for the GOP. It has forced the party to take certain issues seriously that it had previously only paid lip-service to. The pro-life movement is another example; frustration with GOP sluggishness on life issues led to the formation of a movement that now has the power to demand fealty from anyone who would represent Republican voters in Congress.

But frustration can manifest itself in unhealthy ways as well. In some cases, the attacks on Ryan I have witnessed from the “fed up” section of the Catholic commentariat have been equal in fervor and as loose with the facts as those coming from the pro-abortion left. I’m not suggesting that the “fed up” Catholic contingent is comprised of crypto-leftist Obamaites, not at all. But I will say that the general premise that “both parties are evil” is leading some people not only to sniff out nothing but evil, but to also see evil where it doesn’t exist.

I think this may be what is happening with those denouncing Ryan now. It is manifest that Ryan has not “softened his position” on abortion, that he has not abandoned, in full or in part, his opposition to rape exceptions. The Romney campaign stated that a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose exceptions for abortion in the case of rape. Ryan himself explained the significance of this statement: it is Romney, not Ryan, who will be president. It is Romney, not Ryan, who will set the agenda. It is ultimately Romney, and not Ryan, that the campaign spokeswoman was speaking for.

Exploring Ryan’s comments further, moreover, it becomes quite clear that he hasn’t abandoned or changed his position on abortion at all. He said he was comfortable with Romney’s position, because it is a “step in the right direction.” What this obviously means is that while it is good that Romney is opposed to 99% of all abortions (and this is undeniably good), he still has another step to take. His position is still not completely acceptable from a moral point of view. And maybe Ryan himself can be the one to persuade him on this point.

Frankly there is absolutely nothing here for a pro-life Catholic to be miffed about. For decades we have understood, or should understand by now, that the vast majority of Americans and people in general are morally confused on a great many issues. That we have managed to maintain a status quo in which the majority of public opinion can periodically be labeled pro-life is in itself nothing short of a miracle. To expect the average voter to have a morally consistent view on the sanctity of unborn life is expecting almost too much. I would love to see it happen, but my gut tells me that the vast majority of Americans, even if they come to oppose the 99% of abortions that have nothing to do with rape or complicated health issues that threaten the life of the mother, will always demand exceptions in these cases.

If we take this as an unalterable given, then Ryan’s position is just about as principled and realistic as a consistent pro-life Catholic can come to. Without ever having actually stated or even implied in his own words that he believes innocent lives can be taken because they were conceived in rape, he is willing to work with and even campaign with 99%ers, while still maintaining that the ultimate goal would be to eliminate all abortions. This is exactly what I believe myself, in fact.

I simply don’t believe that one can honestly look at this position and consider it an unacceptable compromise, or maintain that he has “softened” or “partly abandoned” his views. I seriously doubt it is some “new” position Ryan has adapted. Again, the fact that we have to accept and work with people who want to allow rape/life-of-mother exceptions has been long established in pro-life politics. If we want to open up a discussion over whether this practice in general is acceptable, I would welcome that debate. But let’s not act like Ryan was one day espousing the sort of extreme sectarian position that would reject all compromise and collaboration with 99%ers, only to abandon this heroic stance when he was nominated to the vice-presidency. I think it is far more likely that this is what Ryan has always believed. And it isn’t a problem at all, not for me, and not for many in the pro-life movement who have accepted political reality.

Mark suggested I might be the one going in the wrong direction, from holding that Obama is simply worse than Romney-Ryan to attempting to “justify this absurd ticket.” So in closing, I will say that on life issues, the ticket needs to be justifiable. If Romney-Ryan really is unacceptable on life issues, then it is unacceptable, period. Allegations that the ticket is significantly deviating form acceptable positions on these issues (or in this case, drifting in such a direction) deserve to be taken seriously. And in this case, the allegations are absolutely bogus.