Stop Playing Word Games: Debate Moderators Must Ask Honest Questions About Abortion

I have never heard anyone ask for some deeper reflection by a politician on the consequences of treating the lives of millions of people and families like so many political poker chips to bargain away at the election table.

I have never heard anyone ask for some deeper reflection by a politician on the consequences of treating the lives of millions of people and families like so many political poker chips to bargain away at the election table. Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

The media loves to obsess about—and stoke controversy around—abortion and contraception. Journalists and talk show hosts can endlessly plumb these long-simmering issues for ratings and sound bites. On the Sunday talk shows, in radio interviews, and presidential debates, politicians exclaim with abandon their support for any number of restrictions and laws, using their so-called pro-life stances to gin up their bases like matadors swinging a red cloak in front of a riled-up bull.

Rarely, however, do journalists stop to ask these politicians: Exactly what is the evidence for your position? And I have never heard anyone ask for some deeper reflection by a politician on the consequences of treating the lives of millions of people and families like so many political poker chips to bargain away at the election table. After all, when some powerful senator blithely declares he “chooses life,” he’s not choosing to pay the medical bills for, diaper, feed, clothe, nurture, educate, and make a lifelong commitment to that child. He is leaving that to someone else who becomes a parent for the rest of their life, whether they wanted to be or not, or can afford to, or not.

This failure of good journalism in the public interest was abundantly clear during last weekend’s GOP debate when conservative commentator Mary Katharine Ham, who apparently lives in an imaginary universe, asserted (erroneously) that younger people favor “at least some modest restrictions that conservatives have supported.” The candidates stumbled all over themselves to prove who was pro-lifier than thou.

GOP presidential aspirant Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), for example, stated with smarmy certainty that when the rights of a woman and an embryo or fetus are “in conflict … I have chosen to err on the side of life.” (In Rubio’s world, women are apparently not alive? Or don’t have lives. Whatever).

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush quickly rushed in to state, “In fact, on this stage, I’m the most pro-life person because I’ve acted on it for eight years as governor of the state of Florida.”

Not one was asked for specifics about the real-life consequences of their abortion positions on the real people affected by them. Nor were they asked why, if they are so opposed to abortion, they are also strongly in favor of and brag about eliminating access to contraception.

So ask yourself this: What exactly are these “modest restrictions” Ham mentioned? Would those be the raft of bills imposing waiting periods, ultrasounds, clinic regulationsand innumerable other such laws passed by GOP-controlled legislatures? The same restrictions that have been universally rejected by leading U.S. and international medical bodies and human rights organizations as medically unnecessary and unnecessarily costly?

Are we talking about bans on abortion after, say, eight, ten, 12, or 14 weeks? Are we talking about 20-week bans based on wholly discredited claims?

The more inaccessible you make early abortion, after all, the higher the share of all abortions that will happen later in pregnancy, so if you ban both, you’ve put women in a complete vise—which is, in fact, the goal of the anti-choice movement. Such bans would eliminate access to abortion for people whose fetuses are not viable, whose life circumstances have changed dramatically, who did not know they were pregnant or could not raise the money for an earlier abortion, or any of a million other circumstances you or I cannot foresee and have no business knowing or judging anyway. Or are we talking about the so-called exceptions for life and health that occur later in pregnancy—which many hospitals are now granted “religious freedom” to refuse even if a woman dies—and which, due to other medically unnecessary regulations, lack of facilities, and lack of training, are harder to access in any case?

We now know from research that these restrictions don’t deter women facing unwanted and untenable pregnancies from seeking abortion. They do, however, make clinics less accessible and only push people later into pregnancy as they scramble to put together funding for the increasingly undue burdens of travel, child care, and multiple visits to see providers. Indeed, one of the most important and ongoing multi-year studies on abortion, carried out by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, revealed that women who are denied abortion and forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term are, according to Rana E. Barar, project director at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, “more likely to be in poverty“:

We also know that women who are unable to obtain an abortion are more likely to stay tethered to abusive partners. There are also early indications that women have reason to worry about the impact of an unintended birth on that child as well as on their existing children. Women do not cite concerns for their own health as frequently in their reasons for wanting to end a pregnancy, but we know that childbirth is much more dangerous for women than having an abortion and we see that in the Turnaway data that shows that women denied abortion have greater short-term morbidity than women who are able to access abortion care.

So starting with Thursday’s debate, it’s time to get real on abortion care and ask all the presidential contenders some in-depth questions. Journalists who fail to do so fail in their basic duty to best inform the public while becoming complicit in the lies and stigma surrounding abortion care. That’s not journalistic objectivity. It’s outright bias.

Question One: Do you trust people to make decisions about pregnancy and childbirth that are best for their families? If not, why not?

This question must be asked. First of all, the fundamental issue behind the debate on abortion and contraception: Is it your life or mine? And why is it your right to intrude into this sphere of my life? Frankly, I don’t believe people like Mary Katherine Ham poll Congress when making their own decisions about sex, pregnancy, and childbirth. In fact, I am willing to bet Ham would assert that she trusts herself to make those decisions. Why are we allowing politicians, male or female, to get away with asserting judgment over the fundamental decisions people make without answering this essential question first and foremost?

Two: Abortion is universally acknowledged by the medical and public health community as a public health issue. If you oppose access to abortion and the right to make decisions about pregnancy and childbirth, why do you believe your judgment should supplant the evidence that exists on abortion worldwide? What is the evidence for your position?

Three: Evidence shows that women who are unable to afford an early abortion spend a lot of time trying to pull together resources, resulting in later abortion.

  • Do you believe that an individual’s economic status should determine whether or not they are able to make fundamental decisions about their lives, including abortion?
  • Do you believe that public funding for abortion is a good thing or a bad thing?
  • Do you believe we should overturn the Hyde and Helms Amendments?
  • Would you refrain from adding the Hyde Amendment to your budget request as president?

Four: Do you think religiously affiliated medical centers should be able to deny people essential health care? If you believe abortion is essential health care, why would you allow these groups to deny women access to this care? Do you believe that hospitals and clinics that deny women care should be eligible for government funding?

Five: For candidates who claim to be “pro-life,” do you believe in forced gestation? This, again, must be asked. It is the ugly reality: Denial of abortion care is forced gestation. Plain and simple. Let’s dispense with the “pro-life” fig leaf and get real.

Six: If you claim to be “pro-life,” do you support greatly expanded government funding for the care and support of children living in poverty, including universal health care, maternal and infant health care, food assistance, housing assistance, and college tuition for those who were unable to afford a(nother) child? Do you support government funding and lifelong assistance for the families of children born severely disabled?

Seven: For candidates who support access to abortion, what will you do to address the fact that under Obamacare millions of women have lost insurance coverage for abortion care?

Eight: For pro-choice politicians: Do you see abortion as a fundamental issue of human rights or do you see being “pro-choice” as a campaign strategy only to be ignored once you’ve been elected?

These questions never get asked, but they are the real issues that need to be raised.

If debate moderators continue to fail to probe these issues, they are perpetuating both abortion stigma and the mirage of consequence-free abortion restrictions that in the end only serve to irreparably damage and punish the people denied access to abortion care.