After pro-choice activists revived a campaign pushing presidential debate moderators to #AskAboutAbortion, October’s Democratic debate featured several questions from moderators that led to a fairly substantial discussion of the topic. However, moderators in future debates could still improve, both in the language they use and the way they frame these abortion-related discussions.
Before the October 15 debate, moderators had largely failed to ask candidates meaningful abortion-related questions -- despite increasing threats to abortion access. Moderators in two of the first three primary debates did not ask a single question about the topic. During the first debate -- a two-night event in Miami -- moderators did ask about abortion, including MSNBC's Rachel Maddow who asked a question about the candidates’ plans to protect abortion access if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. The overall lack of questions about abortion, however, led to abortion rights advocates reviving the #AskAboutAbortion campaign that was first launched during the 2016 presidential race.
After CNN moderators neglected to discuss abortion in the first debate the network hosted in July, the moderators raised the topic during the October 15 debated jointly-hosted by CNN and The New York Times. Before they addressed the topic, however, candidates Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) both brought up abortion during a conversation about health care and criticized the lack of abortion-related questions in previous debates. CNN moderator Erin Burnett reassured the candidates that abortion would be discussed later in the evening.
Towards the end of the debate, Burnett's questions on abortion focused on two highly relevant aspects of current threats to abortion access: the Supreme Court and state restrictions. Burnett used the location of the debate -- Westerville, Ohio -- as an opening to ask candidates what they would do about state efforts to restrict abortion access. As she mentioned, Ohio recently passed a six-week ban on abortion (before many people know they’re pregnant) that a judge has temporarily blocked from being enacted. Burnett also asked candidates if they would pack the Supreme Court with additional justices to protect access if Roe was overturned. Although it was constructive for Burnett to raise the topic in the context of the court, by making court packing the focus of the question, she overly broadened the scope of the conversation -- detracting from candidates’ focus on abortion.
The October debate was an improvement when it came to abortion-related questions. But ultimately, with the current wave of attacks on abortion -- and right-wing media's tendency to dominate the discussion -- debate moderators need to take even greater care to foster substantive and contexualized conversations going forward. Here are some ways moderators of upcoming debates could further improve their discussions:
1) Use inclusive language
While Burnett talked about abortion as a “women’s issue,” this language ignores the experiences of trans people and gender nonconforming individuals who also need abortion care. Future moderators should use inclusive language about abortion to ensure a variety of experiences are represented in the conversation.
2) Keep saying “abortion” when you’re talking about abortion
Burnett did not shy away from the word “abortion” -- using it four times during the debate. Moderators for future debates must ensure they say “abortion” instead of masking the term in euphemisms. Not using the word “abortion” perpetuates abortion stigma, which treats abortion as if it is not a common experience or is shameful.
3) Ask about structural causes of inequitable abortion access, such as the Hyde Amendment or Title X restrictions
Burnett’s questions about Roe and Ohio’s push to essentially end abortion access highlighted crucial topics to assess candidate’s positions. Future moderators should build on this and ask additional questions about the Hyde Amendment or restrictions on Title X funds.
4) Include abortion questions in discussions of health care
Abortion is an essential health care procedure, and moderators should ask how candidates will protect or expand abortion access during discussions of candidates’ health care plans.