Stop fretting about Tim Kaine's abortion record — the personal isn't always political

Yes, Clinton's vice-president pick has wrestled with his conscience, but he's also evolved over time in office

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 25, 2016 3:25PM (EDT)

Tim Kaine   (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Tim Kaine (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Ever since Hillary Clinton announced Virginia senator Tim Kaine as her running mate on Friday, there's been an abundance of confusion and hand wringing over his stance on reproductive rights. The BBC described him as "the Spanish-speaking, anti-abortion Democratic senator." Slate called him "Anti-Abortion Tim Kaine." The Nation more conservatively reported that "Tim Kaine Has a Mixed Record on Abortion." But earlier this month, before the announcement, CNN quoted him saying decisively, "I'm a strong supporter of Roe v. Wade and women being able to make these decisions. In government, we have enough things to worry about. We don't need to make people's reproductive decisions for them."

Let's make this easy — a person with a 100 percent pro-choice voting record and the support of NARAL is probably going to do right by your uterus.

It's not that the concern is entirely groundless. When he ran for governor of Virginia, Kaine, a Jesuit-educated Catholic, described himself as having "a faith-based opposition to abortion" and promised, "I will work in good faith to reduce abortions." True to his word, as governor he supported "appropriate and reasonable checks on the right to abortion" and upheld existing waiting periods and parental consent restrictions. As Vox notes, he also signed a bill allowing for state funding to go to notoriously anti-choice — and often flat-out deceptive — "pregnancy crisis centers." In 2009, NARAL Pro-Choice America called his actions "inconsistent with the strong pro-choice platform adopted by party leaders last August." 

But since he came to the Senate in 2012, Kaine has done what public servants are supposed to — he's upheld the Constitution. Last month, he applauded the Supreme Court's striking down of Texas' draconian abortion restrictions, deriding the "attempt to effectively ban abortion and undermine a woman’s right to make her own health care choices" and declaring the ruling "a major win for women and families across the country, as well as the fight to expand reproductive freedom for all." And he's supported funding for Planned Parenthood in helping combat  Zika.

So remember that when you hear people arguing that Hillary cannot be progressive and choose Kaine — an actual thing that Jodi Jacobson wrote this month in Rewire, calling him potentially "another person in the White House who further stigmatizes abortion."  Remember they're ignoring the reality that politicians are entitled to personal beliefs. They are also entitled to evolve on issues — as Kaine has likewise come around on marriage equality. 

Current Vice President and practicing Catholic Joe Biden has already proven it's possible for an elected official to act in the interests of the American people even when wrestling with his own religious ideals. In 2012, Biden explained it simply, "I accept my Church’s position on abortion as a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception. I accept that position in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians, and Muslims and Jews… I do not believe that we have a right to tell women 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." And it's been 32 years since the late Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York, laid it out in a groundbreaking lecture at the Catholic University of Notre Dame, saying, "My church and my conscience require me to believe certain things about divorce, about birth control, about abortion. My church does not order me under pain of sin or expulsion — to pursue my salvific mission according to a precisely defined political plan…. there is no Church teaching that mandates the best political course for making our belief everyone’s rule." 

As we have seen from clowns like Kim Davis, this country is full of people who believe that they can use their Christianity to deflect the promises they make to uphold the law. And God knows it doesn't lack for older white men who want to control women's ability to choose when and if they have children. But as a woman and a mother of daughters, I don't for a second believe that Kaine's religious convictions cloud his political obligations. I trust him when he says, "I have got a personal feeling about abortion, but the right rule for government is to let women make their own decisions." I judge candidates by their track records, not their feelings. I want leaders who have enough empathy and complex thinking to look at issues and understand that their gut beliefs don't always apply to everybody. In fact, I'd like more of that, please. And as NARAL said in its Friday statement about his candidacy, "This is core part of what it means to be pro-choice – supporting everyone’s individual decision making."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Abortion Dnc Dnc 2016 Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Mario Cuomo Planned Parenthood Tim Kaine