Tulsi Gabbard Exposes Democrats’ Growing Disconnect With Americans on Abortion

“I agree with Hillary Clinton on one thing, disagree with her on many others,” said Gabbard, “but when she said abortion should be safe, legal and rare, I think she’s correct.”

Tulsi Gabbard speaks onstage during the Democratic primary debate Oct. 15 at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.
Tulsi Gabbard speaks onstage during the Democratic primary debate Oct. 15 at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. (photo: Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is one of the only Democrats running for president in 2020 who has conceded that there should be any restrictions on abortion in the third trimester. On the debate stage Tuesday, she embraced this view and even backed an older Democratic stance that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” a phrase that was removed from the party’s platform in 2008.

When asked how she would stop state restrictions on abortion, she said, “I agree with Hillary Clinton on one thing, disagree with her on many others, but when she said abortion should be safe, legal and rare, I think she’s correct.”

“We see how the consequences of laws that you're referring to can often lead to a dangerous place, as we've seen them as they're passed in other countries,” she commented of some proposed state laws restricting abortion. “I do, however, think that there should be some restrictions in place. I support codifying Roe v. Wade while making sure that, during the third trimester, abortion is not an option unless the life or severe health consequences of a woman are at risk.”


Opponents’ Views

Gabbard’s remarks stand in stark contrast to her opponents who have either not addressed the issue of late-term abortion at all or refused to agree to any restriction on it.

South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg told Fox News that he trusted “women to draw the line” when he was asked about restrictions for late-term abortion. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is Catholic, has told reporters that third-trimester abortions should be “a decision that the woman makes.” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders also commented on NBC that any limit on abortion should be between “a woman and her physician.”

California Sen. Kamala Harris echoed the mantra that “it’s up to a woman to make that decision” when asked if there was ever a point at which abortion would be considered immoral. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts stated that any choice on abortion should be left up to the woman when they were asked about late-term abortion.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar actually voiced a stance similar to Gabbard’s at a Fox News town hall in May, saying “of course, there are limits there in the third trimester that are very important about, except for the health of the woman, there are some limits there.” However, she sent some mixed signals about the issue by subsequently being unwilling to say she was opposed to late-term abortion when pressed on the issue by Meghan McCain on “The View.”


Party History

The phrase “safe, legal and rare” was coined by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and adopted by Hillary until her 2016 presidential run. However, Clinton would likely not agree with Gabbard now as during her 2016 campaign, she notably left off the word “rare” when discussing abortion.

When then-candidate Donald Trump accused Clinton of supporting abortions up through the ninth month of pregnancy, her reply sounded similar to the stance of the 2020 Democrats as she responded, “this is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. And I do not believe the government should be making it.” Clinton also received Planned Parenthood’s “Champion of the Century” award in 2017 after being the first presidential candidate the organization endorsed.


Abortion Advocates’ Response

The prominent abortion advocacy group NARAL pushed back on Gabbard’s remarks Wednesday, despite the fact that her voting record earned a 100% rating from them.

NARAL president Ilyse Hogue tweeted that “talking about making abortion ‘rare’ casts judgment on someone else's life choices without walking in their shoes.”

“By singling out later abortion, Tulsi played into right wing misinformation that's grounded in the completely misogynistic idea that there are lots of women out there who cannot behave morally or responsibly without government intervention,” she continued. “This is a false and dangerous claim.”

Planned Parenthood was silent on Gabbard’s comments, but the group’s recently ousted leader Leana Wen agreed with them.

Wen wrote that she appreciated that Gabbard “brought up the third rail for Democrats: that abortion should be ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ We should reduce the need for abortions by investing in prevention.” She went on to call Gabbard “courageous” for bringing up nuances in the debate.

“Most Americans hold complex truths: they can both personally oppose abortion and support others’ right to choose; they can both feel uncomfortable about abortion and not want women to die from back-alley procedures,” Wen said.

After her tweet was attacked by abortion advocates, she responded by emphasizing that “Pro-choice and progressive movements will lose unless we allow more people to join who do not agree 100% with the most extreme ideology.”

Wen’s comments are the latest in a series of statements that indicate that she has acknowledged the common ground she holds with pro-lifers since her falling out with the nation’s largest abortion provider.

Wen and Gabbard are hardly pro-life heroes. Wen was the head of the nation’s largest abortion provider earlier this year and maintains that abortion should be legal. Gabbard has earned the support of Planned Parenthood by consistently voting in favor of abortion and even backs taxpayer-funded abortions through repealing the Hyde Amendment.

However, Wen’s and Gabbard’s willingness to point out that there should be some restrictions on abortion is laudable and puzzlingly controversial. Public opinion polling on the matter aligns with their views on the matter. Marist polling from January, commissioned by the Knights of Columbus, found that 75% of Americans and even 61% of those identifying as “pro-choice” would limit abortion to the first three months of pregnancy. Gallup surveys have also found that while 60% of Americans support abortion in the first trimester, that number drops to just 28% in the second trimester and to 13% by the third trimester. 

The 2020 Democrats’ leftward shift or silence on abortion restrictions even in the third trimester has been noted by The Washington Post and The New York Times. The candidates appear to be largely in lockstep with abortion groups’ talking points on fully funded, late-term abortion. While Tulsi Gabbard’s comments reflect the Democratic party of 10 or 15 years ago, it remains to be seen if she can survive a primary in a party now so in favor of abortion without restriction.

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