Nationally, as state legislatures continue to push an increasing number of abortion restrictions -- and with right-wing media already amplifying anti-abortion misinformation ahead of the 2020 elections -- the primary debates are a crucial opportunity for moderators to ask precise, nuanced questions about how presidential candiates would protect abortion access. CNN’s failure to ask about abortion was out of step with what Democratic voters wanted to hear about during the debates and was a missed opportunity to break right-wing media’s dominance of abortion-related conversations on cable news.
Abortion rights garnered hardly any recognition from moderators or candidates alike during the July 30 Democratic primary debate. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock briefly referred to himself as “pro-choice” in his opening statement.
The only substantive conversation about abortion happened during the July 31 debate. On stage, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) confronted former Vice President Joe Biden over his past support of the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision that forbids the allocation of federal funds for abortion care except in limited cases. This amendment disproportionately affects people of color and those of lower socioeconomic status who might depend on federal support to access health care. Although this short exchange was the only discussion of abortion during both nights of the CNN moderated debates, neither candidate said the word “abortion.” In fact, five hours of political discourse yielded a mere two minutes of abortion conversation without anyone -- the 20 candidates or three moderators -- saying the word “abortion.”
This is not the first time CNN moderators have excluded discussion of abortion during presidential debates. After a 2016 Democratic primary debate, critics called out the network for not asking any questions about abortion despite coming days after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, a case concerning anti-abortion restrictions in Texas. After this week’s debates, abortion rights groups were confounded again by the lack of action
Given the already precarious state of abortion access, debate moderators need to ask candidates specific and nuanced questions on abortion -- otherwise right-wing media and anti-choice outlets will continue to dominate the conversation with harmful misinformation.