With abortion rights before the Supreme Court, October's debate moderators need to #AskAboutAbortion

Image of a microphone on a stand with a hashtag  "Ask About Abortion"

Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Moderators of the Democratic presidential debates have thus far largely failed to ask candidates substantive questions about protecting and expanding abortion access in the country. Abortion rights were already in a precarious position, even before the Supreme Court decided to hear another case challenging access, and the moderators for October’s debate need to prioritize asking how the candidates will respond in the event abortion access is further curtailed, if not eliminated.

On October 15, CNN and The New York Times will host the fourth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 election cycle. CNN’s Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper and The New York Times’ Marc Lacey will moderate the debate in Westerville, Ohio, with the 12 candidates who qualified. Abortion rights advocates are calling on the moderators to #AskAboutAbortion during this debate, a revival of a campaign launched during the 2016 presidential election.

The renewed call for the moderators to address abortion rights comes after moderators in two of the first three primary debates -- one of which CNN hosted -- failed to ask a single question about the topic. During the first debate, which spanned over two nights, MSNBC moderator Rachel Maddow asked about the candidates’ plans to protect abortion access if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

While debate moderators should be asking about abortion no matter the circumstances, the threat to abortion rights since the last debate in September has become even more pronounced. On October 4, the Supreme Court decided to hear a case about a Louisiana law “requiring doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.” The law is based on right-wing misinformation about abortion safety and would leave Louisiana with only one abortion clinic in the state. The law is very similar to a Texas law that the Supreme Court previously struck down as unconstitutional in 2016. Since the 2016 decision, however, President Donald Trump has appointed two conservative justices -- Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh -- who are likely to help provide the five votes necessary to either reverse the previous Texas ruling or uphold the Louisiana one.

As Vox’s Ian Millhiser has written, if the Supreme Court upholds the Louisiana law, “it would send a clear message to anti-abortion judges throughout the country. It would tell those judges that they are free to ignore the Supreme Court’s abortion decisions or to violate the ordinary rules that govern nearly all litigation in order to protect laws restricting abortion.” Indeed, the court could use this case as the next step in chipping away at or overturning Roe altogether.

Beyond this brewing fight on abortion rights at the Supreme Court, the debate’s location in Ohio gives moderators many opportunities to discuss more local impacts of anti-choice policies. For example, two Planned Parenthood clinics in Ohio recently closed following a new regulation from the Trump administration prohibiting clinics from receiving Title X family planning funds if those clinics also refer for or perform abortions. Additionally, in July, a judge temporarily blocked the enforcement of an Ohio law that would ban abortion at six weeks, a point before many people even know they are pregnant. Days before the October debate, a federal court blocked another Ohio law from being enforced that would criminalize abortion providers from performing abortions “if medical tests show a fetus has Down syndrome.”

With the future of abortion access already uncertain -- even without the latest Supreme Court case -- debate moderators from CNN and the New York Times should #AskAboutAbortion and give candidates the opportunity to address how they would protect abortion access.