Here's how debate moderators can avoid perpetuating right-wing media misinformation about abortion

Right-wing media keep lying about Democratic presidential candidates’ positions on abortion. Here’s what moderators should ask to set the record straight.

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

On June 26 and 27, Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls will take the debate stage on NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo to answer questions about their positions on a variety of topics, and, to set the standard, moderators should ask specific and nuanced questions about abortion while avoiding right-wing media misinformation.

In previous election cycles, activists campaigned to ensure candidates were asked debate questions about their positions related to abortion. It will be even more crucial to understand candidates’ positions this year as states continue to restrict abortion access and right-wing media relentlessly spread misinformation and stigma around reproductive health care. Conservatives have already made clear that anti-abortion misinformation will be a core part of their messaging strategy in 2020, from the presidential election down to candidates in state legislative races. Given this, moderators should not only ask specific questions about abortion, but also ensure that they do not repeat harmful right-wing media tropes in the process. This is particularly important as debate moderators (and even mainstream media personalities) have repeated sensationalized and inaccurate language about abortion in the past.

Indeed, as a recent Planned Parenthood forum with many of the Democratic candidates demonstrated, asking reproductive health questions that are fact-based and span a variety of topics -- without falling for anti-choice misinformation -- is a valuable practice for candidates and viewers alike. The moderators of the first Democratic primary debates should follow this example in framing questions about abortion.

Ask candidates about the misinformation surrounding proactive state-level abortion protections and whether they would support these laws

After New York and Virginia proposed proactive legislation to protect or expand abortion access, right-wing media responded with a bevy of misinformation. Contrary to right-wing media allegations that states passing proactive abortion laws supposedly endorsed “extreme” positions such as allowing abortion up to the “moment of birth,” these bills actually codified existing abortion protections in Roe v. Wade or removed harmful barriers to later abortion access. More recently, other states have taken similar steps to protect abortion access in light of the very real threat that the Supreme Court will overturn or further weaken Roe. But the inaccurate allegations have already transitioned from a predictable right-wing media talking point about Democrats’ alleged “extremism” to an oft-repeated attack by conservative politicians -- including the president himself.

Candidates should not only be asked about their position on these proactive state-level abortion protections, but they must also be given an opportunity to respond to the inaccurate and sensationalized allegations about these measures.

Ask candidates about the harmful impacts of fake health clinics and whether they would allow these deceptive groups to receive federal funding

Fake health clinics -- also known as crisis pregnancy centers -- pose as comprehensive reproductive health care providers using deceptive tactics to prevent and dissuade people from having abortions. Despite the very real harm inflicted by these fake health clinics, right-wing media have heralded the supposed benefits of these groups and defended the centers as legitimate alternatives to clinics that actually offer the full range of services, including abortion.

Under Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services, new rules have allowed anti-abortion groups and fake health clinics to receive federal Title X funding. Typically, Title X funds are meant to subsidize family planning services for low-income patients -- making the extension of such funds to anti-abortion organizations that openly oppose providing contraceptive services very concerning.

Candidates should be asked how they would ensure patients seeking abortion or contraceptive care receive accurate information and if they would support the continued provision of Title X funds to anti-abortion groups that have no intention to provide full reproductive health services.

Ask candidates how they would respond to allegations from right-wing media and political opponents that abortion is unsafe and should be restricted or outlawed

Despite myriad allegations from right-wing and anti-abortion media that abortion is unsafe (and should therefore be restricted or outlawed), abortion care in reality is a common and safe medical experience in the United States. In fact, a 2018 study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the vast majority of abortions in the U.S. are safe -- noting that “serious complications are rare and occur far less frequently than during childbirth” -- and that attempts to restrict abortion access “create barriers to safe and effective care.”

Given these facts, candidates should be asked how they would respond to persistent conservative misinformation that abortion is unsafe and should be disproportionately regulated compared to similar health care procedures. In particular, candidates should be asked what they would do to protect safe and legal abortion care in the face of widespread attacks on abortion access at the state level.

Ask candidates what they would do to fight anti-choice misinformation and ensure that abortion isn’t criminalized for either patients or providers

As part of the recent wave of state abortion restrictions, Republican legislators have introduced measures that would criminalize both patients seeking abortion care as well as abortion providers. Research shows that these types of restrictions are harmful and do not actually reduce the rate of abortion, yet some right-wing media figures have expressed their support for these measures. Others in right-wing media have downplayed the likelihood that abortion care would be criminalized or that such measures would ever be enforced. In reality, people in the United States have already “been prosecuted and jailed on suspicion of self-managing their abortions” -- a trend that will likely increase as abortion care becomes increasingly difficult to access.

Candidates need to be asked how they will stop state efforts to criminalize abortion access and how they plan to stem prosecutions of people who self-manage abortion care due to the inaccessibility of what should be a standard medical procedure.

Ask candidates what they would do about the Trump judiciary -- an active threat to abortion rights despite right-wing media’s assurances otherwise

After Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement last year, right-wing media celebrated Trump’s opportunity to appoint a second conservative justice to the bench during his first two years in office. In order to generate support for Trump pick Brett Kavanaugh, some right-wing media and anti-abortion advocates argued that confirming Kavanaugh would not threaten Roe v. Wade or abortion rights in general -- either by downplaying his record on abortion-related cases or by claiming that it was unlikely the Supreme Court would support overturning or weakening the Roe decision. Additionally, Trump has also appointed anti-abortion judges at all levels of the federal judiciary “at a record pace,” and these appointments are a very real threat to abortion rights that will continue to affect federal policy for generations.

Candidates should be asked about their plans for addressing the monumental challenge posed by Trump-appointed judges and justices whose rulings could make abortion illegal or even more inaccessible.

Ask candidates if they support repealing the Hyde Amendment and if there is anything else they would do to increase access to abortion care in the face of right-wing media lies

The Hyde Amendment -- a budgetary restriction on federal funding for abortion services, including through Medicaid -- gained broader media attention after Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden announced he would no longer support it. Notably, this move put Biden in agreement with most other Democratic primary candidates. Right-wing media’s coverage of the Hyde Amendment has focused on the claim that Democrats’ position is unpopular with American voters and will hurt their electoral chances. However, a recent HuffPost/YouGov survey shows that the Democratic Party’s base is also largely opposed to the Hyde Amendment. This shift may be due in part to the discriminatory nature of the Hyde Amendment, which creates significant barriers for marginalized communities to be able to access abortion care.

Candidates need to not only be asked whether they support repealing the Hyde Amendment, but also about what other steps they would take to increase abortion access for communities of color, immigrants, and low-income, rural, indigenous, or incarcerated populations -- all of whom are disproportionately impacted by the Hyde Amendment.

Ask candidates how they would respond to the persistent allegation from conservative figures and right-wing media that supporting abortion rights is “extreme” or “out of step” with voters

As part of the 2020 presidential election, right-wing media continue to push the idea that Democratic candidates hold “extreme” positions on abortion. Candidates who appeared at Fox News town halls have faced inaccurately framed questions about whether they support abortion up to “the moment of birth” or if they would support “any limit” on the procedure. Right-wing media will continue to follow this playbook by badgering Democratic candidates with inaccurate questions throughout the 2020 election cycle, as will Trump and the Republican Party. Right-wing media and anti-choice misinformation needs to be addressed, particularly given the proven dangers of allowing extreme rhetoric about abortion to continue unchecked.

Candidates should be asked fact-based questions about abortion in order to combat persistent right-wing spin about Democrats’ positions that is sure to continue as media discuss the 2020 election.

In several debates during the 2016 presidential election, moderators failed to ask a single question about abortion. Given the already perilous nature of abortion access, it is difficult to believe that moderators would make that same mistake again. These seven questions can serve as a guide for how moderators can ask specific and nuanced questions about abortion -- helping audiences to understand candidates’ abortion-related positions without repeating right-wing media misinformation.