Barely Mentioned In the Debates: Abortion Rights

Abortion is a part of many American women’s lives, and how the candidates intend to treat women who have abortions matters.

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Once again during last night's townhall presidential debate, even as the important subject of birth control was raised multiple times, there was a complete omission of the critical issue of abortion from program.  Yes, it was raised during last week’s vice presidential debate.  Yet, while the moderator Martha Raddatz did a fantastic job with the overall debate, her framing of the abortion question—and the answers it prompted--were disappointing to anyone concerned about the future of abortion care in the U.S and the not-quite-yet-quaint constitutional notion of a separation between church and state. 

Let’s begin with a critique of the question.  Reinforcing the idea that abortion is mainly a personal and religious issue, Ms. Raddatz asked how the candidate’s religious views have shaped their positions on abortion.  While potentially interesting at a forum on personal introspection or while playing Trivial Pursuit, this was a debate concerned with what either Vice President Joe Biden or Congressman Paul Ryan would do as the second most powerful officeholder in a country in which 1.2 million women have an abortion every year.  I personally don’t care whether they believe abortion is right, wrong, moral or immoral.  I care about what they intend to do as policy makers.  Interesting how only abortion, and not economic inequality, war and peace or other matters some relatively prominent Catholics (see: Pope) have talked about as important matters of faith weren’t—and almost never are—fit under the rubric of one’s personal faith.

The question that should have been asked was what policies the candidates support or oppose related to abortion.  How would they use the apparatus of the federal government to further restrict or expand access to abortion care?  Such an approach would have reminded the audience that while the decision to have an abortion is a personal one, how abortion care is financed, provided, and accessed are all public matters.

And if Ms. Raddatz wanted the question to focus on personal beliefs, she could have asked the candidates how they would treat a woman who told them she had had an abortion.  Such an approach would have reminded the candidates that what they are accountable for in their personal lives is the level of respect or judgment they display toward women who have abortions.  Abortion is not an abstract question about one’s philosophical beliefs, it is a real experience that is a part of many American women’s lives, and how the candidates intend to treat women who have abortions matters.

Then there were the responses.  Needless to say, Paul Ryan ‘s position on abortion is well expressed in the dozens of dangerously extreme laws he has supported to restrict access to any abortion, including a bill that allow hospitals to deny emergency abortion care necessary to save a woman’s life.  But he wasn’t asked to offer justifications for these Buchananesque social-policy ideas.  Instead, he was allowed to get away with the assertion that his personal religious beliefs could explain hisprior policy record on abortion.

Yet Ryan’s willingness to now support a policy platform that will allow some abortions to remain legal, in order to become the vice president, went unchallenged.  Why, Ms. Raddatz could have asked, when his future is at stake are compromises to his abortion position acceptable—but when women’s futures are at stake, are they not?  Further Ms. Raddatz could have asked whether Ryan believes that women who have abortions when it is illegal should be criminally prosecuted.  “So Congressman Ryan, how much time should women serve in lockup for having an abortion?”

Although Vice President Biden’s strongly affirmed that he cannot tell women what to do with their bodies, he offered no proactive support for women’s access to care.  He reinforced the idea that abortion exists because of Roe v. Wade and that the future of abortion resides with the next Supreme Court nominations.  But Roe v Wade is not the prevailing constitutional standard for abortion.  Rather that was set by the 1992Casey decision, which allows the government to regulate abortion as long as it doesn’t create an “undue burden” for women (a standard defined about as clearly as pornography or the Romney/Ryan “tax plan”). 

It is because of Casey that women are forced to delay their abortions due to waiting periods and have to listen to scientifically unsupported information about the harms of abortion, and that clinics must adhere to physical plant requirements that do nothing to improve the safety of abortion and everything to increase the cost.  Biden stumbled in providing a simplistic answer to a complicated social issue.  Sorry Joe, support for the right to abortion is not enough; I want to know what you are going to do to improve the situation for the women who need and have abortions.   “So Vice President Biden, what are you going to do to expand access to abortion care for all women?”

It is time to ask politicians questions that will elicit differences beyond the simple milquetoast dichotomy that democrats “support a woman’s right to choose” and republicans “support life.”  Terrific, we already know that.  We need to know how they will treat women who actually have abortions and what they will do to reduce or expand access to abortion care. 

Tracy Weitz, PhD, MPA is a medical sociologist and associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Her research examines abortion in the US as a social and health care issue.

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