Herman Cain 2012: Abortion Comments Defy Pro-Life History

His pro-choice rhetoric shocked pro-lifers. Will conservatives trust him now? Michelle Goldberg reports.

Isaac Brekken / AP Photo

We recently learned that Herman Cain, who seemed unfamiliar with the term “neoconservative,” hasn’t been paying much attention to key foreign policy debates in recent years. Now we know that he hasn’t been paying close attention to the abortion debate either.

On Wednesday evening, Cain gave a rather baffling interview about social issues to CNN’s Piers Morgan. “I believe that life begins at conception, and abortion under no circumstances,” he said, echoing previous statements. But moments later, responding to a question about rape and incest, he suggested that he doesn’t intend to impose his personal beliefs on the country. “What I’m saying is, it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make,” he said. “Not me as president. Not some politician. Not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family… I can have an opinion on an issue without it being a directive on the nation. The government shouldn’t be trying to tell people everything to do, especially when it comes to a social decision that they need to make.”

Anti-abortion activists were shocked. Some, bowing to political realism, are willing to back a candidate who would allow abortion when a pregnancy results from a violation. But Cain’s remarks contradicted what he said just a few days ago, when he explicitly told NBC’s David Gregory that he opposed exceptions for rape and incest “[B]ecause if you look at rape and incest, the percentage of those instances is so minuscule that there are other options.” Beyond that, Cain’s rhetoric, with its separation of personal morality from public policy, echoed that of the abortion-rights movement. Rick Santorum’s campaign seized on Cain’s remarks, firing off a press release headlined, “Herman Cain: pro-TARP, pro-tax and now, pro-choice.”

“That could have come right out of the Planned Parenthood playbook,” Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association says of Cain’s comments. “To us, it’s like somebody saying, ‘I’m personally opposed to gassing Jews, but if you want to do that I’m not going to stand in your way.”

The American Family Association was one of the sponsors of the recent Values Voter Summit, where Cain proved a huge hit among social conservatives, coming in second to Ron Paul in a straw poll. (Paul’s victory was widely dismissed because many of his followers only showed up at the conference in order to vote for him.) Now, says Fischer, some abortion opponents are going to have doubts about Cain’s commitment. “I like Herman a lot, but I think what we’re seeing with him is that he seems to be dealing in a public forum setting with some of these issues for the first time,” he says.

Late Thursday, the Cain campaign was scrambling to rein it in. In a statement to the Christian Broadcast Network, Cain said the CNN comments were taken out of context and referred only to individual cases when a mother’s life is at stake—a situation in which he said he believed a president should never play a role.

Cain has dealt with the issue repeatedly over the last several years. Speaking to The National Journal when he was contemplating a run for president in 1999, he declined to give his position on abortion. But in 2004, during a failed run for the Georgia GOP Senate nomination, he made abortion a signature issue. The Washington Post described him slamming front-runner Johnny Isakson “for being a three-exception man, who… does not oppose abortions in cases of rape and incest.”

Still, he seems oddly unaware of the terms of the debate. The question, after all, is not what Cain personally believes about abortion. The question is whether he would use the power of the federal government to impose that view on others. Doing so, of course, wouldn’t quite square with the small-government libertarianism that’s been his signature, and he hasn’t figured out how to finesse the contradiction.

That failure could signal the end of his brief stint as the darling of the Republican base. On Thursday, The Iowa Republican, whose slogan is “News for Republicans, by Republicans,” ran a piece headlined, “Do We Really Know Who Herman Cain Is?” “Basically, Cain’s position as a candidate is that of pro-abortion activists,” wrote Craig Robinson. “The government has no right to tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body… Cain will likely clarify his position, but how many times and on how many different subjects will he be allowed to ask for a ‘do-over’ before he loses trust and credibility with voters?”

It’s probably too late for a new social-conservative savior to enter the race. “When the dust clears from all this, I think Gov. Perry’s star is going to start rising again,” says Fischer. Perry, as it happens, also believes in exemptions for rape and incest. But as clumsy a debater as he is, he knows better than to ever speak in terms of a woman’s choice. When it comes to abortion, it’s a concept the Republican Party cannot abide.