The January debate is the last opportunity before the Iowa caucuses for moderators to #AskAboutAbortion

Six images with podiums and reproductive rights sayings

Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

January’s Democratic presidential debate represents a critical time for moderators to ask the candidates about abortion. The debate’s timing in the primary voting process, its venue, the demographics of remaining candidates as well as the past performances of moderators on abortion-related questions, all make it imperative that moderators of this debate ask more and better questions about abortion and reproductive justice.

On January 14, CNN and The Des Moines Register will host the seventh Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa. Throughout the 2020 Democratic debate cycle, abortion rights advocates have been using the hashtag #AskAboutAbortion on social media platforms to call on debate moderators to ask candidates about their positions on abortion rights and their plans to protect access. The hashtag was originally created by abortion rights advocate Renee Bracey Sherman to pressure debate moderators during the 2016 election cycle.

There are several reasons January debate moderators should ask about abortion. For one, this debate will be the last opportunity for many people to hear the candidates’ stances on reproductive rights before the crucial Iowa caucuses, which begin the primary voting process in early February (though debates will continue until April).

In addition, the debate's Iowa venue should prompt a conversation about the precarious nature of abortion access in the state and across the country. In 2018, Iowa passed a ban on abortion at six weeks of pregnancy -- when many people wouldn't even know they are pregnant. Last year, a district court judge ruled that the ban was unconstitutional due to protections in the state constitution. While Iowa decided not to appeal the decision, anti-abortion legislators have moved to push a state constitutional amendment that would make future state restrictions easier to pass through the courts. Though that bill failed to advance last year, it could reappear on this year’s legislative session docket. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has also vowed to nominate a conservative judge to the state’s Supreme Court, therefore ensuring a conservative majority should a case about laws restricting abortion be heard by that court.

In the last debate, moderators from PBS NewsHour and Politico did not ask the candidates any questions about abortion or reproductive health care access (though Roe v. Wade was mentioned in a question). So far in the six Democratic presidential debates, abortion has been discussed in the following ways:

  • Moderators have asked only seven questions about abortion.
  • Candidates have mentioned abortion or reproductive rights 16 times without being prompted by the moderators.
  • The word “abortion” has been used 30 times, with nine mentions from three moderators and 11 mentions from six candidates (three of whom have since dropped out).
  • The debates have devoted just 24 minutes out of approximately 20 hours in total to discussions of abortion or reproductive rights.

Additionally, this debate will be the first one of this election cycle without any candidates of color participating. Mentions of reproductive justice and the Hyde Amendment (a budgetary rider that prohibits federal programs from supporting abortion access or care) at previous debates have almost entirely come from candidates of color, showing one of myriad reasons the debate stage should be more diverse.

Reproductive justice is a framework created by a group of Black women in 1994 to better and more holistically understand abortion access as part of broader system of intersecting needs, beliefs, and factors. As reproductive justice organization SisterSong laid out, the movement was developed in recognition that a feminist movement largely led by white women ignored the lived experiences of indigenous women, women of color, and trans individuals who were advocating to “maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” As just one aspect of this movement, reproductive justice advocates have pushed for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment because it disportionately impacts marginalized communities.

Thus far in the debate cycle, only five candidates have mentioned the Hyde Amendment or reproductive justice: former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris. Of those five, only Biden has qualified for the January debate; the other four have dropped out, and all but Gillibrand are people of color.

While it is important for the remaining candidates to discuss reproductive justice and abortion care, January’s debate moderators must also ask candidates about these topics. The debate's location and timing -- in Iowa right before the state's caucuses -- make it a pivotal moment in the election cycle for voters to finally hear the candidates’ in-depth plans to protect abortion access in 2020 and beyond.