Right-wing media love debate moderator's question framed around an anti-abortion talking point

Sign that says "abortion is health care"

Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

At November’s Democratic presidential primary debate, moderators asked the candidates several questions about abortion. However, one question about whether the party should welcome anti-abortion Democrats played into right-wing media’s inaccurate talking points about the Democratic party’s so-called “extremism” for supporting abortion rights.

Moderators have not consistently asked candidates about abortion during this year’s Democratic primary debates -- in fact, moderators failed to ask a single question about the topic during two previous debates. This lack of focus led abortion rights advocates to revive the #AskAboutAbortion social media campaign that was first launched during the 2016 presidential election. The November 20 debate, hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post, included two questions about abortion (excluding follow-up and clarifying questions).

After asking about what the candidates would do if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade (a very real possibility, given the composition of the court), moderator Rachel Maddow of MSNBC asked the following question:

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?

In May, Edwards signed into a law a ban on abortion at six weeks -- a point before many people would even know they are pregnant. The law will not be enacted unless a similar Mississippi law is upheld after being blocked by a federal judge.

Rather than emphasize the harmful impact that anti-choice laws like Louisiana’s have on people seeking access to abortion care, Maddow’s question about Edwards instead elevated the same type of problematic right-wing framing that is frequently used to paint Democrats as “extreme” for supporting abortion access. Furthermore, by turning what could have been a discussion of barriers to abortion access into a question of political optics, Maddow also downplayed the overwhelming public support for abortion access in the country. Even Edwards, who won his runoff election in November, faced some backlash from voters in his state for signing the six-week abortion ban into law.

This isn’t the first time that outlets outside of right-wing media (including MSNBC and The Washington Post) have picked up this right-wing narrative about supposed Democratic extremism on abortion.

Predictably, right-wing media and anti-abortion groups loved Maddow’s question about Edwards. They responded by praising Maddow and attacking candidatesanswers as evidence of how extreme Democrats are on abortion. For example, Breitbart said Maddow asked “a pretty good question.” The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson wrote that Maddow's question “and the Democrats’ refusal to answer it directly was really eye opening and clarifying.” Townhall claimed the question “showed once again how far left” the Democratic candidates “are on the issue of abortion.” Right-wing media figures also tweeted about candidates' answers to the question:

Moderators for future debates would do well to move beyond questions about Roe or those framed around inaccurate right-wing media tropes about abortion. As Renee Bracey Sherman, creator of the #AskAboutAbortion campaign, wrote for Glamour magazine before the November debate, she started the campaign in order “to have a conversation about the different plans candidates proposed to protect and expand the legal right to an abortion.” Moderators should follow this guidance when they #AskAboutAbortion going forward.

Correction (11/25/19): This piece originally included the wrong title for #AskAboutAbortion campaign founder Renee Bracey Sherman.