Thompson, Abortion, and Federalism

Over the course of looking into Fred Thompson's position on abortion, I came across the following statement Thompson made during a 1995 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on banning partial birth abortion. I think it may go part of the way toward explaining some of the conflicting reports of what his position was in the mid-1990s. In this statement, Thompson expresses concern that if a partial birth abortion ban is passed and held up in the courts under the commerce clause, then it may lead to further expansion of government in other areas. To be clear, he ultimately voted to ban partial birth abortion, but what his statement reveals is a concern about limiting the power of the federal government:

 SEN. THOMPSON: Each side on these arguments takes the position of the commerce clause it helps them at the moment. Many of us have been arguing for years, and one of the reasons why we came up here was because we felt like that the federal government should not be encroaching on ever aspect of everybody's lives, and the Lopez decision comes along and we say, hallelujah, finally the Supreme Court is getting some reasonableness into their interpretation of commerce clause. And they said that the position of a gun in a school does not affect interstate commerce. Not all guns are made in Arkansas. Presumably, they were sent in from out of state. In many cases, there were commercial transactions where those guns were purchased. But, still, the Supreme Court said that does not substantially affect interstate commerce. And, now — and I'm not arguing against the ban, I'm not taking a position on that, and for my own good reasons, and I'll stick there, but I think we should realize that if, in fact, this turns out to be upheld under the commerce clause, I don't see a whole lot that the federal government can't reach.

If you go into a small community and the federal government is able to legislate it, but we in Congress go into the smallest community in America and regulate this kind of procedure, sure, somebody may travel across the intrastate lines but, you know, these guns travel across interstate lines too. I just — it's a real dilemma for me and a problem, and I don't think we ought to sweep it under the rug, those of us who are concerned about the centralization of our government and of our regulating everything from up here; that if this is consistent with Lopez, then I don't see that many of us who were cheered by Lopez have much to cheer about anymore, from the standpoint of the interpretation of the commerce clause.

Thompson's position on abortion in the mid-1990s continues to generate debate. On the one hand, we have numerous news reports from the time describing him as pro-choice, and it's unlikely they all could have gotten the story wrong without prompting phone calls from the Thompson camp. On the other hand, we don't yet have direct quotes of Thompson saying he's pro-choice, the co-director of a prominent pro-life group told me that Thompson opposed abortion in 1994, and he has an eight-year record in the Senate to back her up.


How can we explain this contradiction? One possibility is that it could be a matter of semantics. According to news reports, Thompson opposed a federal constitutional amendment banning abortion. The statement on the partial birth ban I cited above suggests that Thompson was concerned about the use of federal government power. It's quite possible that Thompson could have opposed a federal ban on abortion, but favored the overturning of Roe v. Wade so that states could be free to restrict it. Now, I'm still looking into the matter, and I cannot say for sure at this point whether this was the stance he took. But if he did hold such a view, would that have made him pro-life or pro-choice? Could this explain the different recollections concerning Thompson's 1994 candidacy? I don't know, but I'm curious to find out, and would be happy to post evidence on either side.

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