Jacob Sullum

In 1989, when Rudolph Giuliani was running for mayor of New York, some news reports described him as pro-life while others called him pro-choice. Now, as he prepares to seek the Republican presidential nomination, his position on abortion is so nuanced that even he does not know where he stands.

Giuliani's current problem is the opposite of the one he faced in New York. Back then, he was a reputedly anti-abortion Catholic courting voters who overwhelmingly supported abortion rights. Today he is a former New York mayor known for his liberal views on abortion who is trying to please the socially conservative voters in the Republican primaries.

At the same time, Giuliani has to be careful not to move so far in the pro-life direction that he alienates voters in the general election, most of whom support the continued legal availability of abortion, though perhaps with more restrictions than is typical today. The result is a muddle that will satisfy no one who is paying attention.

Giuliani's basic position is the same as the one he took in 1989, when he first ran for mayor (and lost to David Dinkins). He said he thought Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision in which the Supreme Court discovered a constitutional right to abortion, should be overturned. But he also said abortion should remain legal.

Nowadays Giuliani emphasizes that as president he would appoint "strict constructionists" to the Supreme Court, which is generally understood to mean justices who would vote to reverse Roe v. Wade. He says he still supports abortion rights, although he now favors parental notification laws and the federal ban on "partial birth" abortion, both of which he opposed as mayor.

There is nothing necessarily inconsistent about rejecting Roe v. Wade while opposing the state abortion bans it overturned. Indeed, it's a mark of intellectual honesty for a supporter of abortion rights to concede that the constitutional reasoning underlying the decision left much to be desired.

But if that's what Giuliani thinks, his explanation of his preference for strict constructionists is puzzling. "I have a very, very strong view that for this country to work, for our freedoms to be protected, judges have to interpret, not invent, the Constitution," he said during a recent visit to South Carolina. "Otherwise you end up, when judges invent the Constitution, with your liberties being hurt. Because legislatures get to make those decisions, and the legislature in South Carolina might make that decision one way and the legislature in California a different one."

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Jacob Sullum's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.
©Creators Syndicate