Don’t Be Too Hard on Politicians Who Change Their Mind

There’s a difference been being principled and being intransigent.

American vice president Joe Biden gives a speech on board the USS Freedom in Singapore, July 27, 2013
American vice president Joe Biden gives a speech on board the USS Freedom in Singapore, July 27, 2013 (USN/Karolina A. Oseguera)

Don’t be too hard on Joe Biden for changing his mind on federal funding for abortion.

The former American vice president, who is the top candidate for his Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, has a reasonable argument to make. He previously opposed federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest and where the mother’s life was in the danger. “But circumstances have changed,” he told supporters on Thursday.

Republicans have been working overtime to restrict access to abortion in the states they control. The most egregious example is Alabama, which recently outlawed abortion after five or six weeks of pregnancy. Few women even realize they’re pregnant at that stage. Georgia, where Biden spoke, could see a similar law come into effect next year.

“I can’t justify leaving millions of women without access to the care they need,” Biden said.

Reactions

There have been positive reactions. The presidents of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America both pointed out that the current law makes it especially difficult for poor women and women of color to get an abortion and they welcomed Biden’s change of heart.

Others have been less forgiving. The right accuses Biden of caving to abortion extremists. The left suspects he only changed his mind because he is running for president.

Political expediency

So what? If nominated and elected, Biden is unlikely to reverse himself again. Presidential candidates generally try to keep the promises they make. All of the Democrats with a reasonable chance of winning the nomination now support federal funding for abortion — even though it’s not an uncontroversial position.

Most Americans support legal abortion, but 61 percent believe it should only be allowed during the first three months of pregnancy and only in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk. As recently as 2016, 55 percent said they only supported federal funding for abortion under those same circumstances.

Biden is following public opinion to some extent. Among Democrats, support for federal funding for abortion is much higher. But he is also taking a position that could be difficult for him in a general election.

We don’t want politicians who are entirely poll-driven. If Biden changes his mind on many more issues, then Democrats would have a reason not to trust him. But nor do we want politicians who refuse to change their mind even when the facts and public opinion do. There’s a difference been being principled and being intransigent.