Hillary Clinton hails SCOTUS ruling as win for 'safe, legal' abortion

Hillary Clinton's shift on abortion: from "safe, legal and rare" to "safe and legal. What leaving out that one word signals about the presumptive Democratic nominee's changing views, and the changing political landscape.

Signalling an important shift, presumptive Democratic nominee drops 'rare' from description of abortions

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton a rally at the Cincinnati Museum Center on Monday. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

In a 5-3 decision on Monday, the United States Supreme Court struck down parts of a Texas law that substantially restricted abortion access. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton praised the decision, saying the highest court in the land "upheld every woman's right" to "safe and legal" abortion.

But if silence can be deafening, it is one word she didn't use that might have echoed loudest.

Missing from her comments on Monday, was a third adjective she once routinely used to describe her preference for abortions in America: "rare."

Take, for example, Clinton's answer during a 2007 Democratic presidential debate. Asked by the moderator about uniting anti-abortion and pro-choice voters, she stressed that "abortions should be safe, legal and rare. And by rare, I mean rare."

It may sound like a subtle tweak in messaging nine years later. But not to activists on both sides of the fight over reproductive choice.

The power of a word

For those who support a woman's right to choose, Clinton's omission of that one word, "rare," on Monday helps further destigmatize abortion as a human right; for those opposed to abortion, it demonstrates an increasing disregard for the rights of fetuses.

Either way, Clinton's comment did not go unnoticed.

"It's been an ongoing point of discussion," says Melissa Grant, a former director with Planned Parenthood who now runs Carafem, a private abortion service in Washington, D.C.

Activists demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington on Monday, waiting for a decision on Texas abortion restrictions. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

In the thorny world of abortion semantics, "rare" can hold an unwanted double meaning for activists who support choice around abortion.

"When it was 'safe, legal and rare,' it almost felt implicitly stated that it meant legal and 'rarely needed,'" Grant says.

The problem was that anyone seeking to de-legitimize abortions interpreted "rare" as an ideal to be legislated, giving them reason to place extraordinary restrictions on access.

"It was using our own words back, with a double meaning: 'We can make abortion rare. We can make it so rare you won't be able to get one,'" Grant says.

An 'undue burden'

Those kinds of restrictions were at the heart of Monday's ruling. The Supreme Court case centred on Texas laws requiring clinics providing abortion services to meet the standards for ambulatory surgical centres. A second law required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

The judges found that both restrictions unjustifiably imposed an "undue burden" on women seeking abortions.

The majority opinion, by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, concluded: "[N]either of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes."

Each provision, Justice Breyer added, also violated the Constitution.

The ruling's impact will be felt nationwide, creating a legal precedent that will prevent other states from introducing restrictions like the ones in Texas.

Before the law was overturned, it had already drastically reduced the level of abortion services available in Texas. Of the more than 40 facilities statewide that were open before the bill was passed in 2013, 19 clinics still have their doors open.

There are approximately 5.4 million women of reproductive age in the state.

What is 'rare'?

It was under the administration of Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton, that "safe, legal and rare" first became abortion policy.

Carol Tobias, with the National Right to Life Committee in Washington, interprets Clinton's latest statement as an increasingly disturbing shift away from more centrist principles. "Hillary Clinton has dropped the 'rare' … sometime within the last year in the presidential campaign. Hopefully at some point people will ask her, is there any time during a pregnancy in which there is any reason that she thinks that an abortion should not be allowed or performed?"

Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, says Clinton's change in messaging also demonstrates a refusal to acknowledge what he calls a "moral problem" with abortion. "It's as if the abortion industry has decided to entirely give up on this idea of ever making abortion rare."

Ultimately, rare is a relative concept anyway, argues Grant, the abortion provider with Carafem.

'Rare by whose standards?'

"Should a woman choose to have an abortion more than once, that's her legal right," she says. "How many is rare to what woman? Rare by whose standards? Rare in what circumstance?"

Scheidler, who attended a Manhattan meeting of conservative Christian leaders last week, noted that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump delivered a keynote address, but did not touch on the abortion debate as much as he would have liked.

In an interview with Chris Matthews in March, Trump advocated for "punishment" for women who have abortions. He later walked his comments back. He has also called for defunding Planned Parenthood, though he also said they do "very good work for millions of women."

On the right-to-choose side, Grant notes that attitudes continue to evolve. Dropping "rare" as a qualifier might advance the idea that abortions are often the "best option" or most responsible choice for a woman, she says.

"I don't know if it's old-fashioned," she says. "But the issue has just continued to become more complex."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong