One of the best moments in Tuesday’s first and only vice presidential debate was the trap Mike Pence thought he was laying for Tim Kaine on the topic of abortion. While most conversations about the importance of being pro-choice often deviate from religion, Tim Kaine doubled-down on it to defend his own pro-choice position.
When asked about his faith by moderator Elaine Quijano, Gov. Pence quickly pivoted to the issue of abortion by saying, "I tried to stand for the ancient principle of the sanctity of life."
But instead of defending abortion as a health issue for women — as Democrats tend to do — Kaine preserved the frame of pro-choice policies as a religious one. "I think you should live your moral values, but the last thing governments should do is to have laws that would punish women who make reproductive choices," Kaine said. "That is the fundamental difference between the Clinton-Kaine ticket and the Trump-Pence ticket."
Kaine also called out Trump’s assertion that "there has to be some form of punishment" for women who get abortions (which he eventually walked back after some back-and-forth). Pence didn’t seem properly prepared to defend his candidate’s statement, asserting "Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that would punish women who made the heartbreaking choice," and defending Trump’s gaffe by reminding Kaine that the Republican nominee "is not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton."
But Kaine didn’t back away. "We can encourage people to support women," he said. "Why doesn't Donald Trump trust women to make this choice for the themselves? Living our lives of faith with enthusiasm, convincing each other, dialoguing each other about important issues. Fundamental issues of morality, we should let women make their own choice."
Kaine’s personally pro-life but legislatively pro-choice stance isn’t an anomaly. Much like Joe Biden’s response to a similar question during the 2012 vice presidential debate, it makes a subtle point that often gets lost in conversations about reproductive rights: You can personally be against abortion, and still think your faith or opinion shouldn’t limit another person’s ability to get one. It follows the idea that faith should be used a shield, not a sword.
Kaine’s answer embodies a nuanced view of abortion that many Americans share, particularly among Catholics. Many split with the Vatican on their views concerning abortion, though polls show a range of support, anywhere from 38 percent to 55 percent, depending on who is polled and how the question is asked. Overall though, as Vox's Sarah Kliff and Joe Posner have reported, many Americans who personally identify as pro-life also actually support pro-choice policies. In fact, 39 percent of Americans don’t identify as either pro-life or pro-choice.
Nuance may not be a recurring theme during the 2016 election, but the vice presidential debate’s conversation about reproductive rights was the exception.