During the 2020 election cycle, right-wing media have repeatedly seized on abortion-related comments from presidential candidates to paint the Democratic Party as “extreme” and unelectable -- most recently, by spinning three abortion-related stories to manufacture outrage.
Right-wing media have been following a consistent playbook of using abortion misinformation when covering the 2020 elections in order to fearmonger and rally support. Recently, right-wing media have used one playbook tactic in particular to turn comments from 2020 candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg into an opportunity to allege Democrats are “extreme.”
Bernie Sanders at CNN’s climate town halls
During CNN’s September 4 climate town halls, an audience member asked Bernie Sanders whether he would support “empowering women and educating everyone on the need to curb population growth” as a potential “key feature of a plan to address climate catastrophe.”
Sanders responded “yes” and noted that people in the United States “have a right to control their own bodies and make reproductive decisions.” Sanders also referenced a rule known as the Mexico City policy, which was reinstated by President Donald Trump in 2017. The policy prohibits international organizations from receiving U.S. funding if they perform or refer for abortions, even though federal money itself cannot support abortion care. Sanders said it’s “absurd” to deny “American aid to those organizations around the world that allow women to have abortions or even get involved in birth control” and noted that he supports allowing women, “especially in poor countries” who “do not necessarily want to have large numbers of babies” to “control the number of kids they have” via birth control.
As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake explained, “Sanders’s comments drew almost instant denunciations on the right,” with some alleging that Sanders’ mention of abortion rights during the climate town halls was an endorsement of “population control” and “eugenics.” However, as Blake stated, while “Sanders did invoke abortion in his answer,” it was in reference to “accurately describing what the Mexico City policy does,” and not a suggestion that “the United States should support abortion as a means of population control”; rather, he mentioned birth control as a way to address population growth. Forbes’ Janet Burns also noted that “it's not about 'population control,’” instead, “quite the opposite: that is, giving every individual the maximum chance to decide for themselves about their bodies and lives, as well as what or whom they bring into this world, and will leave behind.”
Right-wing media, however, used Sanders’ comments to generate an outrage-based news cycle about so-called Democratic “extremism.” Fox News host Jedediah Bila said on The Five that she found Sanders’ comments troubling because she felt they were “an indication that the Democratic Party” has “an audience for this.” On Special Report, Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway quipped that “there is something to be appreciated about the candor with which he displayed his eugenics and his support for eugenics.” On Hannity, host Sean Hannity similarly asked if Sanders’ “sick, ugly, repulsive support for worldwide abortions to control populations in poor countries” reflects “the new Democratic Party.”
Beyond Fox, others in right-wing media also promoted this lie, with The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh claiming that Sanders “sees a world populated by normal people, on one hand, and surplus people on the other hand.” This right-wing media lie was even repeated on CNN when host S.E. Cupp dedicated a whole segment on her show S.E. Cupp Unfiltered to Sanders’ comments, attacking them as “eugenics.”
Pete Buttigieg’s comments about the Bible
In a September 6 interview, Pete Buttigieg was asked how some Republicans reconcile certain policies with their Christianity. In response, Buttigieg explained how Republicans can interpret and emphasize different parts of the Bible, using abortion as an example. Buttigieg said:
Now, right now, they hold everybody in line with this one kind of piece of doctrine about abortion, right, which is obviously a tough issue for a lot of people to think through morally. Then again, you know, there’s a lot of parts of the Bible that talk about how life begins with breath, and so even that is something that we can interpret differently.
No matter where you think about the kind of cosmic question of where life begins, most Americans can get on the board with the idea of, all right, I might draw the line here, you might draw the line there, but the most important thing is the person who should be drawing the line is the woman making the decision
Although Buttigieg used abortion as an example of how the Bible and religious doctrine can be interpreted differently, depending on the person, right-wing media’s dishonest take was that he was misusing the Bible to claim there should be no restrictions on abortion. On Fox News @ Night, host Shannon Bream said that it “appears he's suggesting late-term abortion may be acceptable under biblical guidelines.” Similarly, on Fox & Friends Saturday, co-host Pete Hegseth claimed Buttigieg was “talking about his defense of being basically pro-abortion all the way to the ninth month.” Buttigieg’s brother-in-law even went on Tucker Carlson Tonight to call on the candidate to, as Carlson put it, “repent” for his remarks about abortion. Carlson also used the segment as an opportunity to attack general Democratic support for abortion rights.
Fox News was not alone in the attempt to spin Buttigieg’s comments. RedState wrote that Buttigieg was “battering scripture by claiming that God doesn’t consider a baby in the womb a life until it takes its first breath” and claimed that “depravity knows no limits within” the Democratic Party. LifeNews.com’s Micaiah Bilger falsely equated Buttigieg’s comments with actions by former Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell, who is currently serving three life sentences for first-degree murder of babies at his clinic. Bilger tweeted at Buttigieg, “So, what do you think of what Kermit Gosnell did? Apparently, you and he think a lot alike about when life begins.”
Later, Buttigieg’s campaign said that the right-wing media outrage was “a massive distortion of what Pete said” during the interview. Of note, this is not the first time right-wing media have attacked Buttigieg about his comments on religion or his support for abortion rights.
Re-emergence of attacks on Kamala Harris for her past work prosecuting an anti-abortion group
In 2015, the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) released a series of deceptive videos alleging wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood. As the then-attorney general of California (where CMP is based), Kamala Harris oversaw the investigation of CMP’s potential violations of state law for recording conversations without participants’ consent. As part of that investigation, Harris’ office searched the apartment of CMP founder David Daleiden.
Since then, right-wing media and Daleiden himself have attacked Harris, claiming she targeted the “journalists” at CMP for their videos. For example, earlier this year, right-wing Christian outlet The Stream published a piece titled, “Is Kamala Harris an Aspiring Dictator? We Asked One of Her Victims, David Daleiden.” In reality, media experts have agreed that CMP’s work is not journalism -- despite right-wing media claims to the contrary. Other outlets have also incorrectly insinuated that her prosecution of Daleiden and CMP came at the bidding of Planned Parenthood or that it was due to her support for abortion rights.
Right-wing media have once again turned to this narrative to attack Harris after the recent start of a preliminary hearing to determine if the criminal case against Daleiden and another CMP member will be brought to a jury trial. On September 6, Daleiden appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight and used the opportunity primarily to attack Harris. Daleiden stated that the case against him was “using the law enforcement powers of Kamala Harris' office to punish dissenting thought and to punish people who have a policy disagreement.” Host Tucker Carlson agreed and further claimed that Harris’ actions were “Third World fascist behavior.”
Others in right-wing media echoed these sentiments. Breibart wrote that “Harris’s political career has been entwined with abortion giant Planned Parenthood from its inception.” After noting Harris’ role in charging Daleiden, Media Research Center’s Connie Weaver claimed that “Harris has herself received thousands of dollars from Planned Parenthood,” and “she was clearly acting in her donor’s interest in pressing charges.” This allegation was also picked up by anti-abortion groups and a Twitter account managed by Trump’s 2020 campaign.
Without a doubt, right-wing media and Trump allies will continue to push the lie that Democrats are “extreme” on abortion as a strategy to rile up voters before the 2020 election. Other media outlets and the public should hold them accountable for creating a climate of anti-abortion misinformation about the candidates.