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Could a lame-duck Tulsi Gabbard be a bridge on the abortion debate?

The Hawaii Democrat is introducing two pro-life bills during her final weeks in Congress.

In this Feb. 8, 2020, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, speaks during the McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner in Manchester, N.H.
Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

A lame-duck session for any politician usually reveals a lot about who they are. Free from the pressure of campaigning, without having to worry about stepping on toes or toeing the party line, elected officials are free to pursue policies that truly matter to them. They can focus on legislation they believe is fundamentally important.

So it’s a bit of a surprise that outgoing Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, with just weeks left in her term in Congress, is introducing not one, but two pieces of anti-abortion legislation.

The Hawaii congresswoman’s two abortion restrictions are not quite as limiting as those introduced by Republican state legislatures over the course of the Trump presidency, but they’re certainly not in lockstep with the Democratic Party’s position on abortion. One bill seeks “to protect pain-capable unborn children” and is likely to restrict abortion after 20 weeks gestation, and the other seeks to ensure that born-alive abortion survivors are treated with “the proper degree of care,” which echoes legislation by Nebraska’s Republican Ben Sasse in the Senate.

During the Democratic presidential primary, Gabbard announced that she would not be seeking reelection to Congress so she could focus on her presidential campaign. She ran to be the leader of the party of abortion rights, before dropping out of the race and endorsing pro-choice Biden — so one would think that this new fervor for fetal protection comes out of left field.

In reality, it was that very presidential campaign that foreshadowed Gabbard’s home stretch efforts.

During CNN’s October 2019 primary debate, several candidates were asked about abortion, and the three who preceded Gabbard in answering postured themselves in defense of a “woman’s right to choose” and the cause of bodily autonomy — including now-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who received thunderous applause for her zeal. When it came time for Gabbard’s response, she too expressed support for typical Democratic measures, such as codifying Roe v. Wade — but then she shifted gears, saying she would make sure a third-trimester abortion would largely be “not an option.” The reaction?


The debate’s moderator moved on to the next round of questions, but it was as though the room had been sobered into considering — if only for a second — that, perhaps, the rights of the woman were not the only ones in play in the abortion debate. In a leftist echo chamber that too often emphasizes the woman and completely ignores the fetus, the thought that there might be a reason to restrict the practice seemed to give the room pause. (I would note, too, that right-wing rhetoric can sometimes emphasize the fetus and ignore the woman.)

Of course, restricting only third-trimester abortions and ensuring care for abortion survivors are just small steps on the way to recognizing the full sanctity of all life — but they are steps. And according to the data, they’re steps that a vast majority of Americans, even those who otherwise support abortion rights, agree should be taken.

Gabbard’s influence in the Democratic Party is waning after becoming something of a Fox News darling during her presidential campaign. Plus, she’s long held somewhat unorthodox policy stances for a Democrat (including another bill introduced this week that seeks to curb transgender participation in female athletics). But she should use any clout she has left to build a bridge between the two major parties on abortion — an ideological chasm that’s only growing wider as Democrats abandon their erstwhile “safe, legal and rare” mantra.

There’s no word yet on how the Democrat-controlled House is reacting to Gabbard’s legislation or how likely it is the bills will pass, but if they follow the numbers and care about their constituents’ beliefs, they’ll line up behind the congresswoman as she bridges the gap — meeting the rest of America halfway there.