Right-wing-media-extreme-abortion-rhetoric-problem-people-hurt-02.png
Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Scorecard: How abortion is being discussed during the Democratic primary debates

  • Pro-choice advocates have been pushing moderators of the Democratic presidential debates to ask candidates about their abortion-related policies or stances, sparking the revival of a 2016 campaign to #AskAboutAbortion.

  • Although the 2020 candidates have sometimes raised the topic themselves, moderators have inconsistently asked direct questions about abortion. In some debates, moderators failed to ask even a single question about abortion.

    Here's how abortion moderators and candidates have discussed abortion during the Democratic primary debates.

  • Abortion in the Democratic primary debates by the numbers

  • How many questions have moderators asked about abortion?

  • Moderator questions explicitly about abortion: 7

    • Debate 1 (June 26-27): 3
    • Debate 2 (July 30-31): 0
    • Debate 3 (September 12): 0
    • Debate 4 (October 15): 2
    • Debate 5 (November 20): 2
  • Moderator questions by debate

    Debate 1, June 26

  • LESTER HOLT (MODERATOR): Secretary Castro, this one is for you. All of you on stage support a woman's right to an abortion. You all support some version of a government health care option. Would your plan cover abortion, Mr. Secretary?

  • HOLT: Senator Warren, would you put limits on -- any limits on abortion?

  • Debate 1, June 27

  • RACHEL MADDOW (MODERATOR): Senator Sanders, I'd like to put a different question to you. Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land since 1973. Now that there is a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, several Republican-controlled states have passed laws to severely restrict or even ban abortion. One of those laws could very well make it to the Supreme Court during your presidency, if you're elected president. What is your plan if Roe is struck down in the court while you're president?

  • Debate 4, October 15

  • ERIN BURNETT (MODERATOR): Turning to women's reproductive rights, Ohio is now one of several states that has banned abortions after as early as six weeks of pregnancy. Many women don't even know they're pregnant at that time. The Ohio law, like many others, is being challenged in the courts and has not yet taken effect. Senator Harris, if states prevail on restricting abortion, what's your plan to stop them?

  • BURNETT: The Supreme Court is currently made up of five Republican-appointed justices and four appointed by Democrats. The court just announced it will hear arguments in a case challenging some abortion rights. Vice President Biden, the Constitution does not specify the number of justices that serve on the Supreme Court. If Roe v. Wade is overturned on your watch and you can't pass legislation in Congress, would you seek to add justices to the Supreme Court to protect women's reproductive rights?

  • Debate 5, November 20

  • RACHEL MADDOW (MODERATOR): Many states, including right here where we are tonight in Georgia, have passed laws that severely limit or outright ban abortion. Right now, Roe v. Wade protects a woman's right to abortion nationwide. But if Roe gets overturned and abortion access disappears in some states, would you intervene as president to try to bring that access back? Senator Klobuchar?

  • MADDOW: Just this weekend, Louisiana re-elected a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards. He has signed one of the country's toughest laws restricting abortion. Is there room in the Democratic Party for someone like him, someone who can win in a deep red state but who does not support abortion rights? Senator Warren?

  • Candidate answers in response to a direct question about abortion

    Debate 1, June 26

  • LESTER HOLT (MODERATOR): Secretary Castro, this one is for you. All of you on stage support a woman's right to an abortion. You all support some version of a government health care option. Would your plan cover abortion, Mr. Secretary?

    JULIÀN CASTRO: Yes, it would. I don't believe only in reproductive freedom, I believe in reproductive justice. And, you know, what that means is that just because a woman -- or let's also not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female, is poor, doesn't mean they shouldn't have the right to exercise that right to choose. And so I absolutely would cover the right to have an abortion. More than that, everybody in this crowd and watching at home knows that in our country today, a person's right to choose is under assault in places like Missouri, in Alabama, in Georgia. I would appoint judges to the federal bench that understand the precedent of Roe v. Wade and will respect it and in addition to that, make sure that we fight hard as we transition our health care system to one where everybody can get and exercise that right.

  • HOLT: Senator Warren, would you put limits on -- any limits on abortion?

    SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I would make certain that every woman has access to the full range of reproductive health care services, and that includes birth control, it includes abortion, it includes everything for a woman. And I want to add on that. It's not enough for us to expect the courts to protect us. Forty-seven years ago, Roe v. Wade was decided, and we've all looked to the courts all that time, as state after state has undermined Roe, has put in exceptions, has come right up to the edge of taking away protections.

    HOLT: Your time is up, Senator.

    WARREN: We now have an America where most people support Roe v. Wade. We need to make that a federal law.

  • Debate 1, June 27

  • RACHEL MADDOW (MODERATOR): Senator Sanders, I'd like to put a different question to you. Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land since 1973. Now that there is a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, several Republican-controlled states have passed laws to severely restrict or even ban abortion. One of those laws could very well make it to the Supreme Court during your presidency, if you're elected president. What is your plan if Roe is struck down in the court while you're president?

    SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, my plan, as somebody who believes for a start that a woman's right to control her own body is a constitutional right, that government and politicians should not infringe on that right, we will do everything we can to defend Roe versus Wade. Second of all, let me make a -- let me make a promise here. You ask about litmus tests. My litmus test is I will never appoint any, nominate any justice to the Supreme Court unless that justice is 100 percent clear he or she will defend Roe v. Wade. Third of all, I do not believe in packing the court. We got a terrible 5-4 majority conservative court right now. But I do believe that constitutionally we have the power to rotate judges to other courts. And that brings in new blood into the Supreme Court and a majority, I hope, that will understand that a woman has the right to control her own body and the corporations cannot run the United States of America.

    MADDOW: Hold on, I'm going to give you 10 additional seconds because the question was …

    SANDERS: I’m sorry?

    MADDOW: ... what if the court has already overturned Roe and Roe is gone? All of the things you've just described would be to try to preserve Roe. If Roe is gone, what could you do as president to preserve abortion rights?

    SANDERS: We will pass -- well, first of all, let me tell you this. It didn't come up here, but let's face this, Medicare for All guarantees every woman in this country the right to have an abortion if she wants it.

  • Debate 4, October 15

  • ERIN BURNETT (MODERATOR): Turning to women's reproductive rights, Ohio is now one of several states that has banned abortions after as early as six weeks of pregnancy. Many women don't even know they're pregnant at that time. The Ohio law, like many others, is being challenged in the courts and has not yet taken effect. Senator Harris, if states prevail on restricting abortion, what's your plan to stop them?

    SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: My plan is as -- as follows. For any state that passes a law that violates the Constitution, and in particular Roe v. Wade, our Department of Justice will review that law to determine if it is compliant with Roe v. Wade and the Constitution, and if it is not, that law will not go into effect. That's called pre-clearance. Because the reality is that while we still have -- as I said earlier -- these state legislators who are outdated and out of touch, mostly men who are telling women what to do with their bodies, then there needs to be accountability and consequence. But, you know, I'll go further. You may have seen it. I questioned Brett Kavanaugh when I was a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and asked him as a nominee to serve on the United States Supreme Court, could he think of any law that tells a man what to do with his body? And the answer was, uh, uh, no. The reality of it is, this is still a fundamental issue of justice for women in America. Women have been given the responsibility to perpetuate the human species. Our bodies were created to do that. And it does not give any other person the right to tell a woman what to do with that body. It is her body. It is her right. It is her decision.

  • BURNETT: Senator Klobuchar, what would you do to stop states from prevailing? Your response?

    SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: I would codify Roe v. Wade and make it the law of the land. But what I want to do right now is just say, what if Donald Trump was standing up here on the debate stage with me? You know what I would say to him? I said, you knew -- you said you wanted to do this in your race for president. You actually said that you wanted to put women in jail. Then you tried to dial it back, and you said you wanted to put doctors in jail. That is exactly what the Alabama law is. It put doctors in jail for 99 years. You, Donald Trump, are not on the side of women. You are not on the side of people of this country, when over 75 percent of people want to keep Roe v. Wade on the book, when over 90 percent of people want to make sure we have available contraception. You defunded Planned Parenthood. I would fund it again.

  • BURNETT: Senator Booker, if states prevail on restricting abortion, how would you stop them? Please respond.

    SEN. CORY BOOKER: Well, first of all, let's be clear about these laws we see from Alabama to Ohio. They're not just attacks on one of the most sacrosanct ideals in our country -- liberty, the ability to control your own body -- but they're particularly another example of people trying to punish, trying to penalize, trying to criminalize poverty, because this is disproportionately affecting low-income women in this country, people in rural areas in this country. It is an assault on the most fundamental ideal that human beings should control their own body. And so the way as president of the United States I'm going to deal with this is, first of all, elevating it like we have with other national crises to a White House-level position. And I will create the Office of Reproductive Freedom and Reproductive Rights in the White House and make sure that we begin to fight back on a systematic attempt that's gone on for decades to undermine Roe v. Wade. I will fight to codify it, and I will also make sure that we fight as this country to repeal the Hyde amendment, so that we are leading the Planet Earth in defending the global assault we see on women right now.

  • BURNETT: Congresswoman Gabbard, your response?

    REP. TULSI GABBARD: This is often one of the most difficult decisions that a woman will ever have to make, and it's unfortunate to see how in this country it has for so long been used as a divisive political weapon. I agree with Hillary Clinton on one thing, disagree with her on many others, but when she said abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, I think she's correct. We see how the consequences of laws that you're referring to can often lead to a dangerous place, as we've seen them as they're passed in other countries, where a woman who has a miscarriage past that six weeks could be imprisoned because abortion would be illegal at that point. I do, however, think that there should be some restrictions in place. I support codifying Roe v. Wade while making sure that, during the third trimester, abortion is not an option unless the life or severe health consequences of a woman are at risk.

  • BURNETT: The Supreme Court is currently made up of five Republican-appointed justices and four appointed by Democrats. The court just announced it will hear arguments in a case challenging some abortion rights. Vice President Biden, the Constitution does not specify the number of justices that serve on the Supreme Court. If Roe v. Wade is overturned on your watch and you can't pass legislation in Congress, would you seek to add justices to the Supreme Court to protect women's reproductive rights?

    JOE BIDEN: I would not get into court packing. We had three justices. Next time around, we lose control, they add three justices. We begin to lose any credibility the court has at all. I want to point out that the justices I've supported, when I defeated Robert Bork -- and I say when I defeated Robert Bork, I made sure we guaranteed a woman's right to choose for the better part of a generation. I would make sure that we move and insist that we pass, we codify Roe v. Wade. The public is already there. Things have changed. And I would go out and I would campaign against those people in the state of Ohio, Alabama, et cetera, who in fact are throwing up this barrier. Reproductive rights are a constitutional right. And, in fact, every woman should have that right. And so I would not pack the court. What I would do is make sure that the people that I recommended for the court, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Elena Kagan, who used to work for me, to others, that they, in fact, support the right of privacy, on which the entire notion of a woman's right to choose is based. And that's what I would do. No one would get on the court. And by the way, if, in fact, at the end of this -- beginning next year, if, in fact, one of the justices steps down, God forbid, in fact, I would make sure that we would do exactly what McConnell did last time out. We would not allow any hearing to be held for a new justice.

  • BURNETT: Mayor Buttigieg, you have discussed expanding the court from 9 to 15 justices. What's your response to the vice president?

    MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: That's right. When I proposed reforming the Supreme Court, some folks said that was too bold to even contemplate. Now, I'm not talking about packing the court just with people who agree with me, although I certainly will appoint people who share my values, for example, the idea that women's reproductive freedom is an American right.

  • BURNETT: Secretary Castro, he's talking about making the court bigger. Your response? Is it a good idea?

    JULIÀN CASTRO: I don't think it is. I wouldn't pack the court. You know, I think the plan that Mayor Pete mentioned is an interesting one, but I actually believe, if we were selecting from one of those things, that the smarter move might be to look at term limits or having people cycle off from the appellate courts so that you would have a replenishment of perspective. I would also make sure that I appoint as president people who respect the precedent of Roe v. Wade, that we codify Roe v. Wade, and that we do away with things like the Hyde amendment, because you shouldn't only be able to have reproductive freedom if you have money. We have to think about people who do not, people who are poor. And we have to concern ourselves not only with reproductive freedom, but also reproductive justice and invest in the ability of every woman to be able to make a choice and to be able to have her health care needs met.

  • BURNETT: Senator Warren, would you consider adding more justices to the Supreme Court to protect Roe v. Wade? Your response?

    SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I think there are a number of options. I think, as Mayor Buttigieg said, there are many different ways. People are talking about different options, and I think we may have to talk about them. But on Roe v. Wade, can we just pause for a minute here? I lived in an America where abortion was illegal, and rich women still got abortions, because they could travel, they could go to places where it was legal. What we're talking about now is that the people who are denied access to abortion are the poor, are the young, are 14-year-olds who were molested by a family member. And we now have support across this country. Three out of four Americans believe in the rule of Roe v. Wade. When you've got three out of four Americans supporting it, we should be able to get that passed through Congress.

  • Debate 5, November 20

  • RACHEL MADDOW (MODERATOR): Many states, including right here where we are tonight in Georgia, have passed laws that severely limit or outright ban abortion. Right now, Roe v. Wade protects a woman's right to abortion nationwide. But if Roe gets overturned and abortion access disappears in some states, would you intervene as president to try to bring that access back? Senator Klobuchar?

    SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: Well, of course. We should codify Roe v. Wade into law. That is what we should do. And this president indicated early on what he was going to do, and he's done it. When he was running for office, he literally said women should go to jail. Then he dialed it back and said doctors should go to jail. So no surprise that we're seeing these kinds of laws in Georgia, in Alabama, where his allies are passing these bills. And what we have to remember is that the people are with us. And I predict this will be a big election -- issue in the general election. And I just can't wait to stand across from Donald Trump and say this to him. You know what? The people are with us. Over 70 percent of the people support Roe v. Wade. Over 90 percent of the people support funding for Planned Parenthood and making sure that women can get the health care they need. He is off the track on this, and he will hear from the women of America, and this is how we're going to win this election.

  • MADDOW: Just this weekend, Louisiana re-elected a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards. He has signed one of the country's toughest laws restricting abortion. Is there room in the Democratic Party for someone like him, someone who can win in a deep red state but who does not support abortion rights? Senator Warren?

    SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, I believe that abortion rights are human rights. I believe that they are also economic rights. And protecting the right of a woman to be able to make decisions about her own body is fundamentally what we do and what we stand for as a Democratic Party. Understand this. When someone makes abortion illegal in America, rich women will still get abortions. It's just going to fall hard on poor women. It's going to fall hard on girls, women who don't even know that they're pregnant because they have been molested by an uncle. I want to be an America where everybody has a chance. And I know it can be a hard decision for people. But here's the thing. When it comes down to that decision, a woman should be able to call on her mother, she should be able to call on her partner, she should be able to call on her priest or her rabbi. But the one entity that should not be in the middle of that decision is the government.

    MADDOW: Senator Warren, I'm going to push you on this a little bit for a specific answer to the question. Governor John Bel Edwards in Louisiana is an anti-abortion governor who has signed abortion restrictions in Louisiana. Is there room for him in the Democratic Party with those politics?

    WARREN: I have made clear what I think the Democratic Party stands for. I'm not here to try to drive anyone out of this party. I'm not here to try to build fences. But I am here to say, this is what I will fight for as president of the United States. The women of America can count on that.

  • MADDOW: Senator Sanders, I'll give you 30 seconds.

    SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Let me just -- Amy mentioned that women feel strongly on it. Well, let me just tell you that if there's ever a time in American history where the men of this country must stand with the women, this is the moment. And I get very tired, very tired of hearing the hypocrisy from conservatives who say get the government off our backs, we want small government. Well, if you want to get the government out of the backs of the American people, then understand that it is women who control their own bodies, not politicians.

  • MADDOW: Senator Booker?

    SEN. CORY BOOKER: This is a voting issue. This is a voter suppression issue. Right here in this great state of Georgia, it was the voter suppression, particularly of African-American communities, that prevented us from having a Governor Stacey Abrams right now. And that is, when you have undemocratic means, when you suppress people's votes to get elected, those are the very people you're going to come after when you're in office. And this bill, opposed by over 70 percent -- the heartbeat bill here -- opposed by over 70 percent of Georgians, is the result from voter suppression. This gets back to the issue about making sure we are fighting every single day, that whoever is the nominee, they can overcome the attempts to suppress the votes, particularly of low-income and minority voters, and particularly in the black community, like we saw here in Georgia.

  • How many times have candidates raised the topic of abortion or reproductive rights, without being directly prompted by a moderator?

  • Candidate mentions of abortion or reproductive rights without being asked: 15

    • Debate 1 (June 26-27): 7
    • Debate 2 (July 30-31): 5
    • Debate 3 (September 12): 0
    • Debate 4 (October 15): 2
    • Debate 5 (November 20): 1
  • Candidate’s unprompted mentions of abortion or reproductive rights by debate:

  • Debate 1, June 26

  • BETO O’ROURKE: And health care also has to mean that every woman can make her own decisions about her own body and has access to the care that makes that possible.

  • GOV. JAY INSLEE: It should not be an option in the United States of America for any insurance company to deny a woman coverage for their exercise of their right of choice. And I am the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman's right of reproductive health in health insurance, and I'm the only candidate who has passed a public option.

  • SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: I just want to say, there's three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman's right to choose. I'll start with that.

  • Debate 1, June 27

  • JOHN HICKENLOOPER: And we were also the first place to expand reproductive rights on a scale basis, and we reduced teen pregnancy by 54 percent.

  • SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Women's reproductive rights are under assault by President Trump and the Republican Party. Thirty states are trying to overturn Roe v. Wade right now. And it is mind-boggling to me that we are debating this on this stage in 2019 among Democrats whether women should have access to reproductive rights. … When the door is closed and negotiations are made, there are conversations about women's rights and compromises have been made on our backs. That's how we got to Hyde, that's how the Hyde Amendment was created, a compromise by leaders of both parties. Then we have the ACA. During the ACA negotiation, I had to fight like heck with other women to make sure that contraception wasn't sold down the river, or abortion services. And so what we need to know is imagine this one question. When we beat President Trump and Mitch McConnell walks into the Oval Office, God forbid, to do negotiations, who do you want when that door closes to be sitting behind that desk, to fight for women's rights? I have been the fiercest advocate for women's reproductive freedom for over a decade. And I promise you as president when that door closes, I will guarantee women's reproductive freedom no matter what.

  • HICKENLOOPER: We expanded reproductive health to reduce teenage abortion by 64 percent.

  • GILLIBRAND: But our rights are under attack like never before by President Trump and the Republicans who want to repeal Roe v. Wade, which is why I went to the front lines in Georgia to fight for them.

  • Debate 2, July 30

  • GOV. STEVE BULLOCK: Look, I'm a pro-choice, pro-union, populist Democrat who won three elections in a red state.

  • JOHN HICKENLOOPER: We also expanded health care and reproductive rights.

  • MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: By 2030, the average house in this country will cost half a million bucks and a women’s right to choose may not even exist.

  • Debate 2, July 31

  • SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: Well, I just -- listen, I mean talk about now running for president, you change your position on the Hyde Amendment, Vice President, where you mad a decision for years to withhold resources to poor women to have access to reproductive healthcare and including women who were the victims of rape and incest.

  • JOE BIDEN: The fact is that the senator knows that that's not position. Everybody on this stage has been in the Congress and the Senate or House has voted for the Hyde Amendment at some point. The Hyde Amendment in the past was available because there was other access for those kinds of services provided privately. But once I wrote the legislation, making sure that every single woman would in fact be have an opportunity to have healthcare paid for by the federal government, everyone that -- that could no longer stand. I support a woman's right to choose. I support it's a constitutional right. I've supported it and I will continue to support it and I will, in fact, move as president to see to it that the Congress legislates that that is the laws as well.

  • Debate 4, October 15

  • SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: This is the sixth debate we have had in this presidential cycle and not nearly one word, with all of these discussions about health care, on women's access to reproductive health care, which is under full-on attack in America today. And it's outrageous. There are states that have passed laws that will virtually prevent women from having access to reproductive health care. And it is not an exaggeration to say women will die, poor women, women of color will die, because these Republican legislatures in these various states who are out of touch with America are telling women what to do with our bodies. Women are the majority of the population in this country. People need to keep their hands off of women's bodies and let women make the decisions about their own lives.

  • SEN. CORY BOOKER: And I'm having deja vu all over again because we have another health care debate, and we're not talking about the clear and existential threat in America that we're in a state that has had two Planned Parenthoods close. We are seeing all over this country women's reproductive rights under attack. And God bless Kamala, but you know what? Women should not be the only ones taking up this cause and this fight. It is not just because women are our daughters and our friends and our wives. It's because women are people. And people deserve to control their own bodies.

  • Debate 5, November 20

  • SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: And in this election, justice and the various injustices people are facing regardless of where they live or their race or gender are very much on the ballot, from economic justice to reproductive justice to health care justice to educational justice. And I truly believe that when we overcome these injustices, we will then unlock the potential of the American people and the promise of America, and that's the America I believe in. That's the America I see. And that is why I'm running for president.

  • How many times have moderators or candidates actually said “abortion” when discussing abortion?

  • Total mentions of “abortion”: 30

    • Debate 1 (June 26-27): 10
    • Debate 2 (July 30-31): 0
    • Debate 3 (September 12): 0
    • Debate 4 (October 15): 10
    • Debate 5 (November 20): 10

    Moderators vs. candidates saying “abortion”:

    Times moderators have said “abortion”: 9

    • Lester Holt: 3
    • Rachel Maddow: 9*
    • Erin Burnett: 4

    Times candidates have said “abortion”: 11

    • Julián Castro: 1
    • Sen. Elizabeth Warren: 7*
    • Sen. Bernie Sanders: 1
    • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: 1
    • John Hickenlooper: 1
    • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: 3
  • * indicates mentions of “abortion” across multiple debates

  • How much time did moderators and candidates spend discussing abortion or reproductive rights during the debates?

  • Total time spent discussing abortion or reproductive rights: 23 minutes and 36 seconds

    • Debate 1 (June 26-27): 6 minutes and 28 seconds
    • Debate 2 (July 30-31): 1 minute and 59 seconds
    • Debate 3 (September 12): zero minutes
    • Debate 4 (October 15): 9 minutes and 56 seconds
    • Debate 5 (November 20): 5 minutes and 13 seconds
  • METHODOLOGY

  • Questions about abortion were counted only by looking at the original prompt from moderators. Clarifications or restatements of the question to additional candidates were excluded from totals.

    Unprompted candidate mentions were determined by counting the number of times candidates brought up abortion or reproductive rights independent of a moderator’s direct question. This includes comments made by a candidate responding to a direct prompt from another candidate.

    Total usage of the word “abortion” was determined by performing searches on transcripts from each debate.

    The amount of time spent discussing abortion or reproductive rights was determined utilizing the same methodology as Media Matters' previous assessments of abortion-related debate conversations.