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Tim Kaine’s evolving views on abortion, explained

Hillary Clinton Campaigns With Tim Kaine In Virginia Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Many progressives weren't particularly thrilled when Hillary Clinton picked Tim Kaine as her running mate. They questioned his stances on things like bank regulation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and they were unhappy that Kaine personally opposes abortion.

Kaine’s position on abortion is a bit complicated, though. He has said, and still says, that he personally opposes abortion as a Catholic. He has also supported or voted for abortion restrictions in the past — including during his stint as Virginia’s governor.

But ever since Kaine entered the Senate in 2012, he has had a perfect pro-choice voting record, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood. He also insists that issues of reproductive choice and intimacy are personal decisions that the government has no place interfering with. "I deeply believe, and not just as a matter of politics but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm," he said in a recent NBC interview.

Some reproductive rights advocates remain deeply frustrated that Clinton would pick Kaine. They say it’s not enough just to vote the right way when abortion rights are under attack in America. They’re working to combat the stigma of abortion, and find attitudes like Kaine’s counterproductive.

At the same time, Kaine genuinely seems to have evolved on the issue of reproductive rights — as many in the Democratic Party have in recent years. And some advocates don’t want to dismiss the value of that.

On abortion, Kaine in 2016 is very different from Kaine in 2005

When discussing Kaine’s views on abortion, many observers have pointed to his 2005 run for governor of Virginia — as well as what he actually did as governor from 2006 to 2010 — as evidence of his hostility to reproductive rights.

NARAL’s Virginia chapter declined to endorse Kaine when he ran for governor because of his positions on abortion, even though he was running against an opponent, Jerry Kilgore, whom NARAL considered "extremely anti-choice."

Kaine said he supported "appropriate and reasonable checks on the right to abortion." He promised to uphold Virginia’s existing abortion restrictions, which included a 24-hour waiting period for abortions, a parental notification requirement, and restrictions on Medicaid funding. And he vowed to pass a ban on "partial-birth" abortions, with exceptions for a woman’s life and health — a promise that he later kept.

As governor, Kaine’s record was rated "mixed-choice" by NARAL. Kaine frustrated reproductive rights advocates by signing a bill creating "Choose Life" license plates, and by approving funding for "crisis pregnancy centers" that discourage women from choosing abortion, often through deceptive means.

On the flip side, he cut off state funding for abstinence-only sex education, citing research that shows the programs don’t work, and signed a law expanding Medicaid coverage of family planning services for low-income women.

But since Kaine was elected to the Senate in 2012, his rhetoric and actions on abortion have shifted pretty dramatically. Not only has he consistently voted for pro-choice positions, he’s also been quite vocal about the need to fight abortion restrictions and protect women’s right to choose.

In the Senate, Kaine voted against a national 20-week abortion ban and voted against bills that contained language expanding the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment. He voted to create a federal fund supporting abortion clinic security, and recently signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill in Congress that would prohibit states from singling out abortion providers for different regulations than those for other health services.

Kaine has repeatedly voted to block bills that would defund Planned Parenthood, which is pretty typical for a Senate Democrat these days. But he has also gone further by vocally defending Planned Parenthood’s value as a "primary health provider" — and he isn’t afraid to say the word "abortion," unlike many Democrats who still prefer euphemisms like "right to choose."

Kaine signed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down Texas’s anti-abortion laws in its recent landmark case. And when the Court did so, Kaine released a statement praising the decision: "I applaud the Supreme Court for seeing the Texas law for what it is — an attempt to effectively ban abortion and undermine a woman’s right to make her own health care choices." He added that the Texas laws were similar to "arbitrary and unnecessary rules that were imposed on Virginia women after I left office as Governor," like a controversial mandatory ultrasound law that Kaine spoke out against in 2012.

There’s an argument to be made that Kaine starting playing up his pro-choice bona fides more aggressively when it became clear that Clinton might pick him as her running mate. But the shift certainly didn’t come out of nowhere.

The pro-choice movement is conflicted on how much it can trust Tim Kaine

Kaine's selection presents a dilemma for pro-choice advocates. Is his evolution on choice genuine? How much of a problem do his previous positions really present? Is his current stance strong enough in an era when the pro-life movement is arguably winning the abortion wars?

In recent years, pro-choice advocates have pushed to fight the stigma against abortion in order to protect it as a fundamental right. They say that about one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, and many people don’t realize that abortion is a safe, routine medical procedure. Abortion should be treated like the normal medical care it is, advocates say, not separated out and turned into a political football.

That’s one reason Kaine’s personal, moral opposition to abortion is frustrating for many advocates, even though he now votes the right way and says most of the right things. Some feel that stances like Kaine’s only reinforce anti-abortion stigma — which sets the movement back and hurts the many women who have had or will need an abortion.

Some advocates also worry what it says about Hillary Clinton if she is willing to pick someone with Kaine’s record, and argue that it means she isn’t a real progressive.

There are practical concerns as well as philosophical ones for advocates. If something happened to Clinton and Kaine became president, would he be as willing as Clinton to fight the constant efforts by Republicans in Congress to chip away at reproductive rights? Or would he be willing to make concessions on those issues in order to pass other important bills?

And that’s just playing defense. Would Kaine push for policies to expand access? After all, abortion access is still severely restricted in many states, and public funding restrictions mean that low-income women have a particularly difficult time affording the procedure.

For instance, Clinton has promised to work towards repealing the Hyde amendment, which would help low-income women afford abortion by once again allowing federal funds like Medicaid to pay for it. But Kaine still says he personally supports Hyde, even though he "is fully committed to Hillary Clinton's policy agenda, which he understands includes repeal of Hyde," Kaine's communications director, Karen Finney, said in a statement.

Finney added that Kaine "shares the concern that low income women and women of color too often face barriers to health care," which is why he supports Planned Parenthood and programs that offer similar services. But would a President Kaine actively fight to repeal Hyde? It seems doubtful.

Similarly, even though the Supreme Court struck down Texas’s anti-abortion law, many states still have a massive number of other laws restricting abortion access that might hold up in court. Kaine did sign on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would ban these kinds of laws. But would he work as hard as Clinton likely would to push it through Congress?

That said, not all advocates think Kaine’s personal beliefs are a deal breaker — so long as he continues to champion legal access to abortion. After all, Kaine’s position on abortion — opposing it morally but supporting it legally — is a pretty common one for many Americans (including current Vice President Joe Biden). Pro-choice advocates need their support too.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, made that argument in a statement supporting the Kaine selection:

In this country, we know that the vast majority of voters — 7 in 10 — believe abortion should be legal. Some of those voters are like Senator Tim Kaine — personally opposed to abortion but also strongly believe that this is a personal issue and not one for politicians to meddle in. This is core part of what it means to be pro-choice — supporting everyone’s individual decision making.

Hogue acknowledged that NARAL pushed against Kaine in the past, but said she’s been pleased to see the shift in his votes and public statements since then.

In other words, he’ll need to be held accountable in the future, but that doesn’t mean he needs to be condemned for his past. "And as with all of our allies, we weren’t afraid to voice disagreement with him then and we will not be afraid to disagree, if needed, with him as Vice President," Hogue said.

The Democratic Party in general has gotten stronger in its support for reproductive rights lately, thanks in no small part to the efforts of reproductive justice advocates pushing them to go on offense.

The Democratic platform this year openly calls for repealing the Hyde Amendment and restoring federal funding for abortion — which was considered a political third rail just a few years ago. And Clinton herself only recently cut the "rare" out of the standard "safe, legal, and rare" line in response to concerns about stigma.

Kaine’s evolution on reproductive rights has followed a similar trajectory. It’s also a path that reproductive rights advocates hope other Americans who share Kaine’s personal views about abortion will follow.