The Federalism Dodge on the Right To Choose

There’s been a lively exchange in the blogosphere today over Paul Ryan’s views on abortion policy, involving people I respect, notably former Political Animal Kevin Drum and National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru. Kevin notes that Ryan was a cosponsor of the Sanctity of Life Act, which expressed a congressional opinion that states should be able to regulate reproductive rights going back to the Moment of Conception–a moment evidently defined as excluding a variety of widely used birth control methods. Ramesh argues that the bill would have simply made it clear state legislatures should regain control over such “policy issues.”

Kevin’s right on this. Yes, there is a federalist case to be made against Roe v. Wade, but no, you can’t claim that’s where Paul Ryan, much less the anti-choice movement he represents, actually stands. The Right to Life, if you are of the zygote-as-just-like-me-or-you persuasion, or the Right to Choose, if you think otherwise, is not a constitutional issue on which there is a great deal of middle ground. Ryan is a confirmed anti-choice guy who may well support “states’ rights” on the issue as a tactical matter, but would be perfectly happy if the Supreme Court would somehow establish a federal constitutional Zygote Rights provision.

As Sarah Kliff notes at WaPo’s Wonkblog today, Ryan said this in 2010:

“I cannot believe any official or citizen can still defend the notion that an unborn human being has no rights that an older person is bound to respect,” Ryan wrote in a piece on personhood for the Heritage Foundation in 2010. “How long can we sustain our commitment to freedom if we continue to deny the very foundation of freedom — life — for the most vulnerable human beings?”

This isn’t about constitutional doctrines or fine-picking or federalism: Paul Ryan would like to offer the protection of state power to zygotes at the expense of women’s
rights. As a tactical matter, he’d support states’ right or the federal government’s rights to make that happen. But let’s don’t pretend he is indifferent to how any level of government would decide to proceed.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.