Does Ben Carson want to change laws, or just minds?

Many pro-lifers have a soft spot for Dr. Ben Carson. It’s no wonder why: the soft-spoken warmth of his delivery and his status as a non-politician during his fateful National Prayer Breakfast speech combined to solidify an image of sincerity few professional politicians can come close to.

In the weeks and years to follow, Carson grew more and more outspoken against abortion as an act of grave evil against innocent babies, including blistering condemnations of abortion’s disproportionate death toll among black Americans and Planned Parenthood’s origins in the eugenics movement. It also came out that his public support for life actually preceded his 2013 rebirth as a political celebrity.

In my mind, there is no doubt that Dr. Carson is a sincere in these views. Over the past week we’ve been covering some perceived chinks in his pro-life armor, first a story about his role in a paper that examined cells from aborted babies, then some alarming comments that seemed to suggest that life didn’t begin until the heartbeat and that some abortifacients might be acceptable.

Personally, the first story didn’t bother me; it seems clear that Carson had no role in bringing the abortions about and was just assessing the information before him. The second was more troubling—I accept that he simply mentioned the heartbeat because it’s an unmistakable hallmark of life that should help awaken people undecided on abortion, but his openness to the morning after pill raises doubts as to whether by “conception” he means fertilization or implantation.

And then I came across this piece in Politico, which reveals that in 1992 Carson described abortion as “destroying life,” yet said that as “a physician who does not believe in abortion, when faced with a patient who has severe medical problems, I would refer someone for an abortion.” At the time, he declared, “I would never advocate it’s illegal for a person to get an abortion. I think in the long run we do a lot of harm when we bludgeon people.”

To be clear, I do not bring this up to question his sincerity. People change a lot in over two decades; in fact, in the aforementioned 2012 speech Carson was quite open about having once been in the “personally opposed, but…” camp, and explained that reflecting on abortion’s similarities to slavery convinced him to abandon it in favor of full-blown championing of life. The fact that at the time of these remarks he wasn’t a politician at all—and couldn’t possibly have imagined being a presidential candidate just a couple years later—is more than enough ground to take him at his word.

More concerning is that between 2002 and 2014 he was a trustee of the Baltimore Community Foundation, which during that time frame gave over $200,000 to Planned Parenthood. As a non-politician he may have had more of an excuse for not knowing better than Jeb Bush, and we don’t know what overlap there may have been between those years and his personally-opposed phase, but campaign spokesman Doug Watts’s dismissal on the grounds that at the time nobody knew “that they had a program of aborting fetuses to harvest and sell body parts” simply isn’t adequate. The fetal harvesting scandal may be one of the latest and sickest manifestations of Planned Parenthood’s evil, but it’s not as if we didn’t know they were bad enough to disassociate from in 2002.

But the biggest problem may be in these comments Watts gave Politico:

“He has always believed that the battle over abortion had to be waged in the hearts and minds of Americans, that you cannot legislate morality. But he also believes we’re winning the debate.”

Many pro-abortion rights politicians also personally have qualms about the procedure, but don’t feel it’s their role to pursue legal restrictions on the measure. Pressed repeatedly to name a legal restriction Carson supports, Watts demurred even as he stressed that the candidate is adamantly anti-abortion.

“It’s not a matter of legality, because there is legal abortion, but you’re asking for his point of view, where his restrictions are,” he said in a follow-up call. “Restrictions are not necessarily in his mind determined by laws. He believes that life begins at conception and that he is opposed to abortion after that.” […]

“It is legal,” Watts said of abortion. “And as I say, he does not think the issue is one that can be legislated as much as having to win the hearts and minds of people, to discover the morality or immorality of abortion. He is unequivocally, completely, positively opposed to abortion.”

Wait, what?

Ben Carson is on the record in support of a couple specific government actions, the 20-week abortion ban and defunding Planned Parenthood. And they way he’s been talking about abortion being “not acceptable” and akin to human sacrifice, and expressly arguing that it must be “rooted out of our nation” just like slavery was, there’s been a pretty unmistakable impression that he wants to make abortion illegal.

But if the campaign’s official line now is that it’s not a question of changing laws, it casts a new light on some of his previous remarks about needing to re-educate abortion seekers to choose life…raising the question of whether that’s all the further he would go as president.

The main argument of those opposed to nominating Dr. Carson has been that he lacks the experience to handle various issues mired in the intricacies of economics, bureaucracy, or geopolitics, leaving moral and medical issues as the areas where he is strongest. That makes any sign of weakness on abortion a liability he can’t afford. Team Carson needs to get in front of this now, with a more detailed pro-life platform that makes clear whether or not Mr. Watts accurately depicted his boss’s views.

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