Safe, Legal, Rare: Lies We Tell Ourselves About Abortion

Clinton offered a way for Americans to keep abortion legal, while saying they didn’t approve of it

“There may be millions in the middle who don’t want to take sides, who don’t want to wrestle with the morality of ending human life. They can keep chanting the mantra, but it rings less true today than ever before.”


President Bill Clinton gave Americans a mantra to chant whenever the abortion debate raged. “[A]bortion should not only be safe and legal,” he said at the 1996 Democratic National Convention, “it should be rare.”

The phrase “safe, legal, and rare” goes back to his 1992 campaign, an example of the rhetorical triangulation for which he was famous.

There was a kind of genius to it. Clinton’s mantra offered a way for Americans to keep abortion legal, while saying they didn’t much approve of it. It was like a moral “safe space” for the debate. You can avoid the controversy by embracing a paradox: I’m for it and against it at the same time.

But you can sit comfortably in a paradox for only so long, and the walls of this safe space are crumbling fast.

Safe, legal, but not too rare

Abortion clinics around the country are shuttering at record speed. Some of the closures are from decreased demand. But many are the result of stricter state regulations.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of such regulations right now. Since 1992 states have been free to regulate abortion so long as their regulations do not effectively deny women access. The question in the present case is whether Texas’s abortion laws do that.

They probably do. And that points to the problem with the “safe, legal, and rare” position. These regulations were passed in the name of making abortion safer. Abortion is still legal. But the regulations are also making abortion harder to come by.

Safe, legal, but just too rare for some.

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