Hillary Clinton’s Moral Conflicts on Abortion

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has repeatedly spoken out in support of the right to abortion. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards has praised Clinton for treating reproductive issues as “more than just a sound bite” and the pro-choice organizations Emily’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America have endorsed her. However, Clinton’s views on abortion are more nuanced and reflect her religious commitments to a greater degree than partisans on either side of the issue may realize.

For the most part, Clinton’s stance matches the official stance of the United Methodist Church, or UMC—the tradition in which she was raised and remains a faithful member. Clinton, who calls herself an “old-fashioned Methodist,” told a Newsweek interviewer in 1994 that abortion is morally wrong. One of her biographers, Paul Kengor, notes that she has turned to the UMC’s Book of Resolutions when she has wanted help reaching a decision or when grappling with a moral question. The Book accepts abortion but only in a qualified way. It professes “the sanctity of unborn human life” while allowing that certain circumstances—“conflicts of life with life”—may warrant terminating a pregnancy. This may explain Clinton’s recent comments on NBC’s “Meet the Press” during which, to the dismay of many pro-choicers, she described the fetus as an “unborn person.” She has also declared her support of some “late-pregnancy” restrictions that would go into effect perhaps as soon as the “unborn person” is viable, except in cases of rape or incest or when the life or mental or physical health of the mother is at risk.

Husband Bill has perhaps been a more reliable defender of legal abortion. Already pro-choice when he served as governor of Arkansas, he seemed troubled by the question of when life begins. He noted in his 2004 memoir that it is self-evident that biological life starts at conception. Even so, “No one knows,” he wrote, “when biology turns into humanity or, for the religious, when the soul enters the body.” Kengor reports that Bill sought the guidance of his then-minister, the Reverend W. O. Vaught, a conservative Baptist whose anti-abortion stance was well known. Vaught’s opposition, however, had been shaken by the real-life trials of parishioners faced with difficult pregnancies. Challenged by Bill to offer a definitive answer, Vaught turned to the Bible. Based on his reading of scripture, he concluded that not until God “breathes life” into a body does “personhood” start. Human life, then, begins at birth with the first breath, he said; while abortion may be morally suspect, it does not qualify as murder. For Bill, Vaught’s interpretation—which differs from the UMC’s—settled the issue.

In her public comments, Clinton has been more ambivalent than her husband. She has noted that the question of when human life begins is “delicate” and “difficult,” echoing the UMC’s position that the beginning of life is “the God-given boundary” of human existence. When Clinton was New York’s Senator, she refused to sanction legislation placing limits on access to contraception because, she argued, doing so effectively turns abortion into a stand-by method of birth control. In a 2006 email released by her campaign, Clinton argued that low-income women experience more unintended pregnancies when contraception is expensive or hard to find, and “almost half of unwanted pregnancies end in abortion.” She made clear in a 2007 Democratic presidential forum that she wants to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” And, she emphasized, “By rare, I mean rare.”

Clinton has broadened the scope of standard pro-choice arguments by acknowledging that abortion can be an agonizing decision and that it “represents a sad, tragic choice to many, many women.” She has also acknowledged that it can lead to long-term feelings of guilt and regret, which the UMC calls “post-abortion stress”—after-effects rarely discussed by pro-choice activists. When women weigh whether to terminate a pregnancy, Clinton counsels them to “summon up what we believe is morally and ethically and spiritually correct and do the best we can with God’s guidance.” Once again, her religiously grounded advice tracks the UMC’s: “We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause them to consider abortion. We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom, and discernment.”

Misgivings aside, Clinton’s support for legal abortion seems to have been constant since at least 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade. Women throughout history have sought abortions, legal or not, she says, and they will continue to do so even at the risk of their lives. She shares this non-negotiable starting point with the UMC, which while professing the sanctity of unborn human life also avows its respect for “the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother.” For Clinton and the UMC, the primary concern is to ensure the safety of women who, regardless of their reasons, opt for abortion.

Clinton’s gynecologist during her years as Arkansas’s First Lady, William P. Harrison, confirmed that women’s health is her principal motivation when Kengor interviewed him. Her pro-choice commitment, Harrison said, is pragmatic. “She would have had friends who had illegal abortions … I am sure that was part of it.” The hazards of back alley procedures are well-documented: In the 1930s, illegal abortions accounted for 14 percent of maternal deaths in the U.S. Clinton has expressed impatience with those she describes as a “small group of extreme ideologues who claim the right to impose their personal beliefs on the overwhelming majority of the American people.”

To understand Clinton, according to her husband, “you should look first at her Methodist faith.” Her youth pastor and lifelong mentor, the Reverend Donald Jones, said she views “the world through a Methodist lens.” Even for Kengor, a conservative, pro-life Catholic, “there seems no question that Hillary is a sincere, committed Christian and has been since childhood.” The former Religion News Service reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman, based on interviews with people close to her, calls Clinton a “Social Gospel Methodist to the core.” Clinton often says she cherishes the UMC for its call to social justice and is particularly inspired by the teachings of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”

Spurred by this religious mandate, Clinton seems to have set aside her personal reservations about abortion in favor of “the good” of public protections for women’s health which, in her view, includes access to safe, legal procedures. Her commitment extends to partial-birth abortions, although in a 2000 New York Senate debate, she described this procedure as “horrible.” According to Politifact, in cases where a woman’s life is in danger, or her health or fertility is threatened, Clinton has insisted that the option to terminate must remain available no matter how far advanced the pregnancy. Her views, once again, recall those in the UMC’s Book of Resolutions: “We oppose the use of late-term abortion … and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger.”

Clinton has made efforts to reach out to pro-life advocates and, The New York Times reports, she shows sincere respect for those whose stance is motivated by religious belief. It is not clear, however, that the public understands Clinton’s piety or the depth of her attachment to the Methodist tradition. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center reveals that about half of U.S. adults correctly identify Clinton as “at least somewhat” religious while nearly the same number—43 percent—are under the impression that she is not religious.

This disparity can be attributed in part to her reluctance to discuss her faith commitments. She may be guarded for good reason: According to Kenneth Woodward, Clinton worries about being misunderstood. “If I quote a Bible Scripture,” she told him, “people are always looking for the hidden meaning in it.” The last time Clinton mentioned the moral wrongness of abortion was in 1994 during her interview with Woodward. But, she said at a 2008 Democratic forum that the “potential for life” begins at conception, and she described her struggle, “as a Methodist,” to balance potential life with concern for the life of others. Clinton’s recent reference to an “unborn person” seems to indicate that this struggle continues.

She may have decided that she has little to gain by sharing her qualms. She risks alienating left-wing voters who support the right to abortion; the revelation that, for her, being pro-life and a feminist are not mutually exclusive may have already shaken their confidence in her advocacy. She also risks sending confusing signals when her position remains, as it has been for decades, staunchly pro-choice. One of Clinton’s greatest challenges in the run-up to November will be to persuade the Millennials—people aged 18 to 35—who supported Bernie Sanders to go to the polls. Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum argued recently that young voters appreciated Sanders’ simple and clear rejection of limits on abortion: “He’s for X, full stop. He’s against Y, end of story. Millennials want a decisive answer, Drum said; otherwise it doesn’t “sound like the truth.” Because Clinton is open to regulations on abortion, progressive Millennials may see her as “another tired establishment pol who never gives a straight answer about anything.” Should she decide to share the nuances of her position, she could further erode her standing among them. It is likely, then, that Clinton will delay in-depth engagement with abortion at least until after the election.

Still, recent surveys of Americans across the political spectrum, including Millennials, show that the majority tends to be conflicted about abortion in ways that mirror the UMC’s official position and Clinton’s misgivings. Nearly two-thirds of adults polled by PRRI in 2011 consider themselves both “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” They reject binaries and embrace two seemingly contradictory positions. As a group, Millennials also struggle with the morality and legality of abortion—a 2015 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, or PRRI, shows that nearly half identify simultaneously as pro-lifer and pro-choicer.

Given the growing prevalence of what PRRI calls an “overlapping identity” on abortion, more Americans may be ready for civil conversation about legal abortion than in the past. Clinton’s faith-based commitments give her the ability to relate to others whose views are similarly grounded. If she acknowledges her ambivalence about the morality of abortion, she could give pro-lifers the hearing they demand. A decision to encourage nuanced engagement and be up-front about her mixed position would likely not change minds. But it could decrease the apparent polarization on this issue, and perhaps lead to greater tolerance for a diversity of complex views.