Journalists, Ask Democrats Real Questions about Abortion

From left: Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg onstage before the Democratic presidential candidates debate in Westerville, Ohio, October 15, 2019. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)

Tuesday’s primary debate featured presidential candidates once again wielding euphemisms to gloss over their support for abortion on demand.

‘Would you support any restriction on abortion procedures, and, if so, what would it be?” It’s a simple enough question, and one I’d imagine many Americans would like to hear posed to politicians running for president. It’s also one that presidential candidates never are required to handle.

The fourth debate of the Democratic primary took place in Ohio on Tuesday evening, and, for the fourth time this election cycle, moderators failed to ask candidates to respond to this exceedingly fundamental, exceedingly important question. It’s almost as if journalists at major networks don’t want Americans to know where politicians stand on the matter.

This year has featured a series of public debates over abortion restrictions, sparked by state laws legalizing abortion past the point of fetal viability and, on the other side of the issue, state laws attempting to limit abortion to the first few weeks of pregnancy. Despite the immediate relevance of the issue, Democrats continue to avoid articulating whether they’d back a single restriction on the controversial procedure, even late in pregnancy.

Last night’s debate was just the latest example. Abortion policy was left until the final hour, and both questions on the topic were based on the unspoken premise that no form of abortion restrictions would be acceptable to any Democratic politician. Moderators asked several candidates what they’d do as president to prevent states from limiting abortion early in pregnancy and asked another few to say whether they’d consider packing the Supreme Court to “protect reproductive rights.”

The assumption behind both questions is that of course limiting abortion is per se unacceptable and of course presidential hopefuls must be prepared to wield the power of the office to ensure that abortion remains available throughout pregnancy. And, given the opportunity, candidates were perfectly happy to elaborate on their fanciful policy ideas for doing just that.

California senator Kamala Harris promised to enact a regime of “pre-clearance,” using her administration to block state laws that her Department of Justice deems contradictory to Roe v. Wade. “While we still have . . . state legislators who are outdated and out of touch, mostly men who are telling women what to do with their bodies, then there needs to be accountability and consequence,” she intoned.

As abortion-rights advocates often do, Harris ignored the fact that women tend to favor abortion restrictions at higher rates than men do, before going on to call abortion “a fundamental issue of justice for women in America” and repeating the question-begging euphemism that no one can tell a woman what to do with her own body.

Former vice president Joe Biden, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, and former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro all said that, as president, they would codify the ruling in Roe v. Wade as federal law, but they offered no explanation as to how they would achieve such a goal without trampling on the Constitution’s separation of powers.

Booker noted, too, that he would create an “Office of Reproductive Freedom and Reproductive Rights” within the White House to police attempts to undermine Roe. Both Booker and Castro promised to repeal the Hyde amendment, a rider that has been added to federal spending bills on a bipartisan basis to prohibit the direct funding of abortion procedures. (For his part, Biden came out against Hyde this summer, after spending decades of his career insisting he’s a “personally pro-life” Catholic Democrat who believes it’s essential to safeguard the conscience rights of pro-life Americans.)

Several candidates repeated the statistic that seven out of ten Americans support Roe — a fairly useless piece of data, considering that only about 62 percent of Americans even know Roe had to do with abortion, according to a 2013 Pew survey. Among respondents under 30 years of age, that percentage fell to 44 percent. How much less must Americans realize the implications of Roe for federal and state abortion policy?

Another question that might be useful to pose to Democratic hopefuls: Do you agree with Roe’s holding that states have a right to regulate abortion after a fetus becomes viable? The current Democratic baseline — that abortion ought to be legal throughout all nine months of pregnancy for any reason — is, at least in theory, in tension with the Supreme Court’s reasoning in both Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, both of which leave room for states to regulate abortion after fetal viability.

Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard was the only candidate on stage to articulate support for abortion restrictions of any kind, taking the old line of the Democratic party that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. “I support codifying Roe v. Wade while making sure that, during the third trimester, abortion is not an option unless the life or severe health consequences of a woman are at risk,” Gabbard said.

By taking this stance, Gabbard made herself far and away the most moderate Democratic candidate on the issue, and still her position is out of step with a majority of Americans, most of whom favor limiting abortion to, at most, the first three months of pregnancy.

Given the complexity of public opinion on abortion policy, the least moderators could do is ask candidates to be straightforward rather than catering to their desire to grandstand on euphemism and avoid the fundamental questions at the heart of the debate.

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