Mr. Abstract

05.19.15 9:15 AM ET

Just What Is Rand Paul Saying About Abortion?

The senator says we “have to figure out when we agree life begins.” But two years ago he pushed a fetal personhood bill—and then said there would be “thousands of exceptions” to it.

Rand Paul, the junior United States senator from Kentucky and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has a tendency to take positions so nuanced they can, within the span of a few statements, veer into abstraction.

Abortion is no different.

In Philadelphia on Monday, during a Q&A at the National Constitution Center, Paul was asked by a local radio host, according to The Daily Caller’s Alex Pappas, if he would make abortion a central issue of his presidential campaign.

“You know…I will answer the question as honestly as I can,” Paul replied. “I didn’t run for office because of this issue. It wasn’t what got me to leave my [ophthalmology] practice.”

Later, Paul was asked “whether he believes the issue of abortion is more best handled by the states, or by the federal government under the 14th Amendment,” according to The Daily Caller.

“I think best by the states,” Paul said.

Then, he added, “I think the question that still divides us, and it’s a difficult question, is when does life begin. I think we go down all kinds of rabbit holes talking about other stuff, but I’m an ophthalmologist, and I see 1-, 2-pound babies in the neonatal nursery. I look into their eyes to try to prevent a form of blindness that is now preventable…and everybody agrees that that a 1-pound baby has rights. If someone were to hurt that 1-pound baby in the neonatal nursery, it’s a problem. That baby has rights. But we somewhat inconsistently say that a 7-pound baby at birth or just before birth has no rights. And so I think these are questions we have to sort out. We just have to figure when we agree life begins.”

Paul tried to figure that out himself, in 2013.

That year, he introduced a bill, S.583, into the Senate. Titled the “Life at Conception Act,” the legislation, sometimes called “fetal personhood,” would define a person as a fertilized egg and, according to a press release from Paul’s office, “would implement equal protection under the 14th Amendment for the right to life of each born and unborn human.”

Paul was adamant that the proposal would not “amend or interpret the Constitution” but would instead rely “on the 14th Amendment, which specifically authorizes Congress to enforce its provisions.”

In other words, Congress had taken care of ensuring that the government couldn’t take away life, liberty, or property from any person without due process of law in 1868—but Congress hadn’t been specific enough. What constitutes a person?

By defining life as beginning with the fertilization of an egg, Paul’s bill would cleverly nullify Roe v. Wade, circumventing the Supreme Court, to leave the issue of abortion in state hands.

But since the introduction of the “Life at Conception Act,” Paul has made statements that have made it difficult to understand what, exactly, he believes.

Shortly after the bill’s unveiling, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Paul if there would be exceptions for rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk. Paul replied, “What I would say is that there are thousands of exceptions. I’m a physician, and every individual case is going to be different…Everything is going to be particular to that individual case and what is going on [with] that mother and the medical circumstances of that mother…I don’t think it’s as simple as checking a box saying, ‘Exceptions’ or ‘No exceptions.’”

The following year, in October 2014, Paul was asked while campaigning in South Carolina whether Plan B should be legal. “I am not opposed to birth control,” he said. “Plan B is taking two birth control pills in the morning and two in the evening, and I am not opposed to that.”

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That position is defensible since the science is on Paul’s side.

Were Paul’s “Life at Conception Act” to become law, it wouldn’t matter that he believes there should be exceptions in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at risk, and it wouldn’t matter that he doesn’t believe Plan B is a form of abortion.

While it’s true that the science sides with Paul, it doesn’t matter who science sides with. Science doesn’t make laws, lawmakers do. And lawmakers named Rand Paul don’t get to craft individual abortion laws in all 50 states after Roe v. Wade has been undone by Rand Paul’s “Life at Conception Act.” There is no telling what states would do, given the power to decide whether abortion is legal. And it is entirely possible that socially conservative Republicans who believe certain forms of birth control cause abortion could outlaw those forms of birth control, and Paul couldn’t say a thing about it.

Not that you’d be able to understand what he was trying to say anyway.