‘Voters Deserve Better’: Two Nights of Debates, Zero Questions About Abortion

Though CNN’s moderators failed to address reproductive rights during this round of debates, some candidates did bring it up on their own.

[Photo: Democratic presidential hopeful former Vice President Joe Biden (L) gesticulates as US Senator from California Kamala Harris speak passionately.]
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) challenged former Vice President Joe Biden’s shifting positions on the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding for abortion care—a policy that disproportionately harms people of color and those with low incomes. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Debate moderators failed to ask a single question about reproductive rights, including abortion, during the second round of Democratic presidential debates. The oversight concerned advocates, who say the issue is especially critical in the current political environment.

“Voters need to know what candidates will do to protect their reproductive health care—yet tonight all they got was deafening silence,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, acting president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a statement. “We’re talking about our health, our rights, our futures. We can, and we must, do better.”

“Voters deserve better from these primary debates. Right now, 25 million women in America are one Supreme Court case away from losing the right to access abortion—even though 77 percent of Americans support access to safe, legal abortion,” McGill Johnson said. “The Trump administration has spent the past three years pushing policy after policy to take away access to birth control, to allow discrimination in health care, to block patients from getting care at Planned Parenthood. This is more than a health care issue. It is a matter of economic justice, racial justice, and reproductive freedom.”

“Over the course of two Democratic debates with significant time spent discussing health care, both the moderators and candidates failed to focus on access to abortion and other reproductive health services,” said Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health (NIRH) Action Fund, in a statement. “With reproductive freedom under attack and millions of people waking up each day wondering whether they will be able to access essential health services they need, including abortion care, we urge candidates and moderators to address this crisis.”

Though CNN’s moderators didn’t address reproductive rights, some candidates did bring the topic up on their own. Most notably, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) challenged former Vice President Joe Biden’s shifting positions on the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding for abortion care—a policy that disproportionately harms people of color and those with low incomes.

“You made the decision for years to withhold resources to poor women to have access to reproductive health care,” Harris said, referring to the anti-choice restriction. “Do you now say that you have evolved and that you regret that?”

Biden replied that everybody on stage who had served in the U.S. Congress had voted for Hyde Amendment at some point, referencing Democrats—Harris among them—who have voted in favor of including Hyde language in government spending bills in order to pass them with Republican support.

“Once I wrote the legislation making sure that every single woman would in fact have an opportunity to have health care paid for by the federal government, everyone, then that could no longer stand,” said Biden.

As Li Zhou interpreted this statement for Vox, Biden “acknowledged that his health care proposal wouldn’t be able to work if abortions and other reproductive health care were not included in it since it relies on federal money.”

Biden faced scrutiny in June for a series of flip-flops on his position on the Hyde Amendment. Ultimately, Biden announced that he opposed the policy, telling attendees at a Democratic National Committee gala that “if I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code,” according to the New York Times. When the former vice president released his health-care platform in July, it included a call to end the restriction.

“This brief exchange underscored the critical importance of hearing from the candidates on how they will defend Roe v. Wade and protect reproductive freedom,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a statement. “It also highlighted the immense pressure all the candidates face from the millions of voters who know that abortion rights are in jeopardy and are demanding real leadership.”

Ronald Newman, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), lauded the discussion around Hyde that took place on the debate stage Wednesday evening.

“There’s a reason our volunteers have been pushing candidates for months on this issue. For more than four decades, Hyde and other bans on abortion coverage by government insurance programs have pushed abortion care out of reach for low-income people, particularly poor women of color,” Newman told Rewire.News. The ACLU has sought to engage candidates on the issue as part of its Rights For All Campaign. “Abortion is a constitutional right, and access to it shouldn’t depend on where you live or how much money you make. We’re glad to see it receive time on the debate stage last night and plan to ensure it continues to be an issue in this campaign,” Newman said.

Following years of advocacy from women of color, permanently eliminating the Hyde Amendment has gained unprecedented support among Democrats. Democratic presidential candidates have overwhelmingly condemned the ban, and the party included ending the restriction in its official platform in 2016.