Debate moderators asked about abortion. Right-wing media reacted with predictable spin.

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Update (6/28/19): This piece has been updated to include reactions to abortion-related comments during the July 27 debate.

After moderators asked about abortion during the first 2020 Democratic primary election debate, right-wing and anti-abortion media demonstrated their commitment to the inaccurate talking point that candidates’ support for abortion access is “extreme.”

During the June 26 debate, moderators asked several questions about abortion. Moderator Lester Holt initially asked former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro if he would “support some version of a government health care option” that would “cover abortion.” In addition, Holt asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) whether she would support “any limits on abortion.” Though not substantial, these questions are a slight improvement over the 2016 election cycle, when moderators often either failed to ask candidates about their positions on abortion or explicitly framed the abortion discussion around inaccurate right-wing talking points.

Going forward, moderators can and should do more to ask the candidates specific and nuanced questions about abortion. However, even if they do, right-wing media’s response will seemingly remain the same: alleging that in their support for abortion rights, candidates are out of touch with voters, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Conservatives have already demonstrated that anti-abortion misinformation will be a core part of their messaging strategy in 2020. Since the beginning of the year, right-wing and anti-abortion media have been promoting the allegation that support for abortion access is “extreme” -- whether in discussing candidates’ positions or state laws attempting to codify or expand abortion rights.

Right-wing and anti-abortion media reactions to the first Democratic debate were not much different. Here are some of the predictable attacks launched by right-wing media:

1) Repeating the allegation that Democrats are “extreme” for supporting abortion access

  • The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway: 

  • Fox News contributor Marc Thiessen:
  • Anti-abortion group Priests for Life’s Bryan Kemper:
  • The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh:
  • Anti-abortion organization Students for Life of America (SFLA):
  • The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro:
  • Anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List):

  • A Twitter account managed by President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign team:

2) Attacking Warren for allegedly avoiding an abortion question -- a common right-wing media claim about candidates’ abortion-related comments

  • National Review’s John McCormack:

  • The Washington Free Beacon alleged that Warren “did not directly answer a question at Wednesday night's Democratic primary debate about whether she'd support any abortion restrictions.”
  • The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra:
  • SFLA:

3) Attacking Castro for his answers about reproductive justice and trans-inclusive abortion care

  • Mollie Hemingway:
  • SBA List:
  • TheBlaze’s Jason Howerton:

  • Fox News’ Todd Starnes:
  • Right-wing and anti-abortion media also exploited the opportunity of the debate to use anti-trans language of “biological men” to misgender and demean trans folks. Following a comment from Castro about trans-inclusive abortion care (during which, many advocates noted, he misspoke or used inaccurate terminology), The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh tweeted, “Never forget that a Democratic politician on a national stage claimed that biological men can get pregnant.” And's headline stated, “Julian Castro says biological men have the right to kill babies in abortion too.” The Gateway Pundit wrote, “Democrat candidate Julian Castro says biological men must be granted abortion rights.” BlazeTV’s Allie Beth Stuckey said, “People are saying Castro stood out the most last night. I didn’t see that at all. Maybe it happened after he said biological men could get pregnant and I turned the TV off.”

During the second Democratic debate held on July 27, right-wing media and anti-abortion advocates continued to criticize candidates’ answers about abortion and similarly argued that candidates expressing support for abortion were “extreme.”

Moderators during the second debate asked only one abortion-related question (with a follow-up question restating the initial premise). Moderator Rachel Maddow asked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) what he would do as president if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Sanders discussed nominating judges who “will defend Roe” and additionally argued that his healthcare plan would ensure abortion access regardless of patients’ income. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) also addressed the question and explained the harms of the Hyde Amendment, which restricts government funding of abortion services. Here are some of the additional attacks from right-wing media and anti-abortion advocates in response to these abortion-related comments from the debate:

4) Attacking Sanders’ comments about the Supreme Court and characterizing his healthcare plan as “extreme” for ensuring abortion access

  • Anti-abortion organization National Right to Life:
  • The Daily Wire’s Ryan Saavedra:
  • SBA List:
  • The Rubin Report’s Dave Rubin:

  • SFLA:

5) Berating Gillibrand for speaking to “America’s women” about abortion and current threats to abortion access

  • Townhall’s Guy Benson:
  • SBA List’s Mallory Quigley:

  • Abby Johnson, president of the anti-abortion organization And Then There Were None:
  • SBA List:

Additional research by Chenay Arberry and Maddy Webb