With the recent hidden-cam videos of Planned Parenthood medical officials discussing the harvesting and sale of fetal tissue driving domestic policy debates in Congress, it was natural that issues related to reproductive health would be a focus in last week's much-watched Fox News GOP presidential debate. The surprise was not that the candidates voiced their disregard for the organization that has been a punching bag for Republicans since the Reagan era, but that so many of the candidates boxed themselves in on the broader issue of women's reproductive health. Key moments from last Thursday will likely create lasting harm as the party seeks to retake the White House in 2016.
Considering the faction that serves as his shaky toehold in the nomination battle, it was natural that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee argued for policy that he termed "even more bold" than opposition to continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood. That "bold" stance — that the due process rights in the Fifth and 14th Amendments should be applied to fetuses from the moment of conception and that the president should use his full powers to defend those rights — is grounded in shaky science and shaky jurisprudence. Huckabee said his contention that life begins at conception "is affirmed by modern science and every unique human DNA schedule, which is present at conception." The notion of a "DNA schedule" is apparently a Huckabee campaign creation. Just as creative is his legal theory that is recognized by no American court and would promise to disrupt numerous aspects of jurisprudence — from basic inheritance law to innumerable components of the criminal code.
Because Huckabee offers no real threat to gain the nomination, his legal and scientific fictions have little lasting meaning. Decidedly more relevant were the statements during the debate of two of the three most likely GOP nominees at this moment: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. (The third, Jeb Bush, had his own challenges on the topic of women's health just a few days before the debate.)
In a question regarding his views on abortion, Walker reiterated his refusal to allow exceptions — including an exception in the case of severe risk to the life of the mother — to his pro-life views. Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly asked concisely: "Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion?" Channeling an infamous 1988 Michael Dukakis debate moment, Walker coldly concluded: "... I've said many times that that unborn child can be protected and there are many alternatives that would protect the life of the mother." Walker failed to present the "many alternatives" that women in such a dire situation would have at their disposal.
While decidedly more elegant than the Nixonesque Walker, Sen. Rubio countered aggressively Kelly's question about the breadth of exceptions that Rubio would allow, emphasizing that he had never argued for an abortion exception in the case of rape and incest. Rushing to the right of most on the crowded stage, Rubio said, "I've advocated passing a law that says that all human life, at every stage of its development, is worthy of protection — in fact, I believe that law already exists. It's called the Constitution of the United States." It was a good applause line with a partisan Republican crowd in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena; general election voters will respond to the concept quite differently.
While used in targeted mail and social media advertisements, women's health issues became an overarching component of the 2012 Obama campaign. The issue was clearly key to the monstrous 20-point gender gap rolled up in the race, but there was also evidence that the issue resonated with men desiring equal opportunity for the women in their lives. There is no evidence that, no matter the current challenges facing Planned Parenthood (which, despite weeks of damaging press, maintains a net positive rating with general election voters according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll), support for women's health has lessened as a winning issue for progressives. In its desire to make clear its opposition to Planned Parenthood the present crop of Republican candidates is marching its party, which must broaden its appeal in 2016, into an abortion trap difficult from which to disentangle.