Between the gaslighting and the steamrolling at Wednesday’s vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, it might have been easy to miss the significance of Pence’s answer to moderator Susan Page’s questions about the future of Roe v. Wade. Page asked, “If Roe v. Wade was overturned, what would you want Indiana to do? Would you want your home state to ban all abortions?”
Pence started by talking at length about the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the subject of an earlier question, and then effused about Judge Amy Coney Barrett as brilliant and in possession of a “sizable American family.” He warned Senate Democrats against attacking Barrett personally on her faith. He also offered no response on Roe. Page then turned to Kamala Harris who said that the nomination should not be pushed through with 27 days before the election, as people are already casting ballots, then added that she would “always fight for a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.” Harris then pivoted to the court’s impending vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act.
Pence, given time to rebut Harris claims about people with preexisting conditions who will suffer if the ACA is overturned, said this:
I couldn’t be more proud to serve as vice president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. I’m pro-life. I don’t apologize for it, and this is another one of those cases where there’s such a dramatic contrast. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris support taxpayer funding of abortion all the way up to the moment of birth. Late-term abortion. They want to increase funding to Planned Parenthood of America. For our part, I would never presume how Judge Amy Coney Barrett would rule on the Supreme Court of the United States, but we’ll continue to stand strong for the right to life.
Mike Pence, still potentially contagious with COVID-19 thanks to a superspreader event at the Rose Garden, had initially refused to have a plexiglass partition separating him from Harris. And yet here he was wrapping himself in the mantle of life and the sanctity of same. The president, also ostensibly in favor of life, has infected 34 workers in a hollowed-out White House that must be disinfected routinely, and is now refusing to participate in a presidential debate next week unless he can also infect Joe Biden. Respect for life that is not. Pence insisted the party stands for life on the very same day we learned that Trump’s Justice Department deliberately and knowingly presided over a regime of ripping babies from their parents at the border to punish migrant families. This was the same Mike Pence who couldn’t bring himself to discuss whether climate change represents an existential threat to humankind. But he would like you to associate him with his robust and unflinching support for human life.
So let’s just say it: This refusal to evince any responsibility or concern for 210,000 dead from the pandemic and millions who stand to lose health care in the coming months, or even to respect Kamala Harris enough to agree to public health measures that might protect her from a virus he may be spreading, is not unequivocal support of “life.” Pence, to be frank, is proving himself to be an enthusiastic and uncompromising supporter of death, and also of fetuses. There’s a difference. Republican senators have already shown the same tendency: Their willingness to confirm Amy Coney Barrett this month comes at the cost of quite literally exposing themselves and others to possible death. Many of these same Republicans, including some on the Judiciary Committee that meets next week in person, refuse to disclose their infection status in order to prevent any delays in the hearings. Like Pence, their pro-life stance is so extreme that they don’t mind infecting anyone to preserve the unborn. That’s like saying you support trees while you raze entire forests to protect the acorns. Unless of course acorns can be used as medicine to save you, in which case screw the acorns as well.
The party that has gleefully presided over the abject failure to equip Americans with PPE and COVID tests, the party that refuses to take up relief measures for families crushed by the pandemic, the party that enthusiastically pushes to throw millions of Americans off their health insurance plans in a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, is not protecting life. Not even potential future life. As professor Reva Siegel of Yale Law School has long argued, a “pro-life” view of the world must necessarily encompass more than stopping abortions. It would sweep in “policies on sexual education, contraception, abortion, health care, income assistance, and the accommodation of pregnancy and parenting in the workplace.” Donald Trump and Mike Pence can wrap themselves in the soothing language of supporting life. But not one other word spoken during Wednesday night’s debate suggested any regard for human life, as it is currently manifested across the country and, indeed, the planet. As their attempts to minimize and distract from their COVID response shows, they seem a bit more comfortable every passing day to resign themselves to widespread death. Or as Siegel put it in an email to me today, “We have to stop debating abortion in a single-issue context—and ask what opposition to abortion reflects when an official or government opposing abortion fails to express concern for human life in these other policy contexts?”
Early in the debate, Susan Page asked Pence why he and the administration opposed masks and other protections recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both at the Rose Garden ceremony and after. “How can you expect Americans to follow the administration’s safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you at the White House have not been doing so?” Page asked. His answer:
Many of the people who were at that event, Susan, actually were tested for coronavirus, and it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists regularly and routinely advise. The difference here is President Trump and I trust the American people to make choices in the best interest of their health. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris consistently talk about mandates. … We’re about freedom and respecting the freedom of the American people.
He thus grotesquely recast both Page’s and Harris’ condemnations of the White House’s cavalier disregard for human life as dishonoring “the American people” and “the sacrifices the American people have made.” Actually, no. What he was really saying is neither he, nor the president, nor anyone else who refuses to wear masks (including his wife when she joined him onstage after the debate) should be denied their right to exercise “freedom” and personal choice, even if human life is at stake. But this exact freedom and choice is precisely what they would like to deny to women who would also like to make much more fundamental decisions about their own bodies and lives than merely keeping a mask on. Only then does the value of “life” enter the ledger sheet, and indeed tip the balance completely. Pence’s “commitment to life” is not a stance that reflects an actual commitment to human existence, or individual agency, or survival. It’s a stance that reflects a commitment to unfettered liberty for men, even at the undisputed, scientifically certain risk of others. This should surprise no one. The commitment to individual liberties at the expense of proven loss of life is the cornerstone of many GOP policies, from the party’s gun rights platform to its yearslong opposition to Obamacare.
The GOP forfeited the right to celebrate its earnest regard for life a long time ago. As Trump and Pence and the GOP now reenact ritual set pieces laughing in the face of mass death, let’s credit them with brave nihilism, or simply acknowledge the privilege of wealthy white men who have infinite resources and nothing left to lose. But can we please stop talking about their high regard for “life”? It’s an affront to all those who have died and suffered without the rights or freedoms to choose anything but death.