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Al Cross: Mitch McConnell and abortion — a classic irony

Mitch McConnell has been known more for using his power as Senate Republican leader than for the advancement of any particular issue, except money in politics. Until now.

He made possible the first Supreme Court decision to remove a constitutional privilege: the 49½-year-old right to an abortion. It is classic irony, because McConnell was once on the other side of the issue, and it illustrates how he has shifted shape to gain and retain power.

One fall day in 1996, McConnell and I were in Lyon County. He was running for a third term, and he made a point of telling a crowd that he opposed abortion. I can’t recall exactly how he put it; what struck me was that he made the point at all. I had covered many McConnell speeches, but rarely if ever had I heard him emphasize the issue, though it was a big factor in making Kentucky a Republican state.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column. We offer it to other publications throughout the Commonwealth, with appropriate attribution.

He may have been uncomfortable running on the issue because he once supported the right to an abortion – or at least blocked measures as Jefferson County judge-executive that would have conflicted with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, according to The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, a short biography by journalist Alec MacGillis. It’s a 2014 election-year polemic, but its reporting stands up.

When opponents of abortion tried to get the county Fiscal Court to pass ordinances that would have made abortions harder to get, McConnell kept all but one of the measures from coming to a vote, according to Jessica Loving, then director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.

“It was clear to her, she says, that McConnell was screening the ordinances not only on legal grounds but also because they clashed with his pro-choice leanings,” MacGillis wrote. Loving told him, “He had a very feminist perspective on it.”

At the time, the Republican Party had not embraced opposition to abortion, and many Republican women in Louisville were supporters of abortion rights. But in 1980, the national GOP platform opposed abortion. In 1984, McConnell narrowly won election to the Senate, and in 1987 he displayed a keen interest in the nomination and confirmation of federal judges.

When the Senate defeated the nomination of outspoken conservative Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, McConnell said it set a new, more political standard for nominees. He cited a law-review article warning that when “senators treat the Supreme Court as a political institution that they expect to hew to a particular ideological line, the public is likely to see the court in the same light, and so is the court itself.”

It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 2016, McConnell kept a Supreme Court seat open, allowing Donald Trump to make judges a bigger issue, which helped him win over evangelical conservatives, a pivotal voting bloc. In 2017, McConnell and Senate Republicans cleared the way for strongly conservative justices by exempting Supreme Court nominations from filibusters. (McConnell was following a precedent he prompted four years earlier, set by Democrats desperate to circumvent his delays of their nominations to the Court of Appeals.)

In 2018, when Trump wavered on his nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh because of sexual-abuse allegations, McConnell bucked up the president, telling him “I’m stronger than mule piss” for the nominee. And in 2020, he got Justice Amy Coney Barrett confirmed just six weeks before the election, which was fundamentally at odds with his blocking of Merrick Garland’s nomination in 2016. McConnell tried to justify that by saying Supreme Court confirmations in an election year should wait when the Senate and the White House are controlled by different parties, but the only rational principle in that rationale is this: If you have power, use it.

Barrett’s vote was the final one needed to overturn Roe v. Wade. McConnell, who had stood up for the right that decision created, is now arguably the person most responsible for ending it. He has always cast himself as a mainstream person, not someone who would endorse radical action. But now he has fostered it.

What does McConnell really think about abortion? Take a hint from his press release: “More than 90% of Europe restricts abortion on demand after 15 weeks, but every state in America has been forced to allow it more than a month past that, after a baby can feel pain, yawn, stretch, and suck his or her thumb.”

So, McConnell seems to be where Chief Justice John Roberts failed to take the court – and where most Americans probably are. Knowing the decision was coming may have given McConnell more impetus to get a deal on gun violence, to reassure swing voters this fall that his party isn’t so radical. He stands for one thing, above all else: getting and keeping a Senate majority.

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One Comment

  1. Richard says:

    Roe started a culture war in this country. It was a slap in the face to millions of people who opposed abortion on sound moral and ethical grounds. At least now people will have a choice at the ballot box. Seems local companies like P&G and Kroger are covering travel costs for employees seeking abortion, so gaps in ‘health care’ will be filled.

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