Research/Study Research/Study

Here Are The Abortion Questions That Should Be Retired From Presidential Debates

In 56 Years Of Presidential Debates, Moderators Have Frequently Asked Abortion Questions That Reduce The Topic To Religion Or Judicial Appointments Or Perpetuate Stigma

A coalition of reproductive rights groups is campaigning for the inclusion of more timely and substantive questions about abortion in the presidential and vice presidential debates of 2016, arguing that the abortion questions that have been asked in the past are insufficient for today. Indeed, a Media Matters review of presidential and vice presidential debates from 1960 to 2012 shows that 68 percent of all abortion questions repeated the same three themes, which are overly abstract, stigmatize the issue or ignore the escalating assault on reproductive health care access.

  • Pro-Choice Groups Called On Debate Moderator To Ditch “Theoretical” Abortion Questions And Ask Presidential Candidates How They’d “Address The Crisis In Abortion Access”

    Pro-Choice Groups Called On NBC News’ Lester Holt To Ask Candidates Substantive Questions About Abortion During First Presidential Debate. On September 22, a coalition of reproductive rights groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, UltraViolet, All* Above All Action Fund, National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority, and CREDO, issued a joint letter encouraging Lester Holt, moderator of the first presidential debate, to ask the candidates how they would “address the crisis in abortion access in our country” that is causing real and widespread harm. The letter noted that asking a practical question about abortion is essential because “since at least 1984, moderators have typically posed questions on abortion that border on entirely theoretical because they focus on extreme outlier cases”:

    In presidential debates since at least 1984, moderators have typically posed questions on abortion that border on entirely theoretical because they focus on extreme outlier cases. We hope that your questions capture the true needs of women and the lived experiences surrounding abortion access.

    Below are the questions we propose you ask:

    1. Among all of the barriers to accessing abortion care for American women, financial burdens rank highest. This is because the Hyde Amendment prevents low-income women from using public health insurance to access this medical service, and clinic closure laws have been so detrimental that it now requires considerable financial means to take time off work, find childcare and travel long distances to access abortion care. As president, how would you ensure that the constitutional right to abortion is guaranteed to all Americans, regardless of their financial situation?

    2. The Zika virus is a threat faced by countless Americans, particularly in Florida, where you two are currently fairing evenly. Polls have shown that 6 in 10 voters believe a woman should be able to access abortion if she is infected with Zika. If elected president, would you allow a woman infected with Zika to access abortion, or would you restrict that access?

    3. In Texas, where women’s health clinics have closed because of laws that put restrictions on their operations, maternal mortality has doubled. As president, what steps would you take to reverse maternal mortality in this country? [NARAL Pro-Choice America Press Release, 9/22/16; Media Matters, 9/23/16]

    First Presidential Debate Did Not Include Any Questions About Abortion Or Reproductive Health Care

    Bustle: “The First Debate Didn't Mention Abortion Even Though The Theme Was ‘Prosperity, Direction & Security.’” The September 26 presidential debate did not include any discussion of abortion or reproductive health care. In an article titled “The First Debate Didn’t Mention Abortion Even Though The Theme Was ‘Prosperity, Direction & Security,’” Rachel Krantz reported that abortion was not addressed once, “even in passing.” [Bustle, 9/27/16]

    Past Abortion Debate Questions Were Mostly About Religion Or Judicial Nomination Litmus Tests, Or They Reinforced Stigma

    Of 34 Questions Asked About Abortion, 68 Percent Should Be Retired. Media Matters reviewed all presidential and vice presidential debate transcripts from 1960 to 2012 on the website of the Commission on Presidential Debates. This analysis showed that the word “abortion” has been used in a question by debate moderators or panelists at least once per presidential election cycle since 1976. In total, Media Matters reviewed all debate questions and found that a total of 34 moderator or panelist questions cited abortion, and 23 of the questions -- 68 percent -- framed the ask around the effect of religion on abortion or litmus tests for judicial appointments, or stigmatized abortion. Additionally, during the elections of 2012, 1996, and 1992, abortion questions were posed only during the vice presidential debates. [The Commission on Presidential Debates, accessed 9/29/16]

    These Are The Types Of Questions Moderators Should Move Beyond In 2016

    Questions About Judicial Appointments Based On Roe v. Wade

    2008 Election:

    CBS News Moderator Bob Schieffer Asked Candidates If They Would “Nominate Someone To The Supreme Court Who Disagrees With You” On Roe v. Wade. During the October 15, 2008, presidential debate, moderator Bob Schieffer noted that then-Republican presidential nominee John McCain believed “Roe v. Wade should be overturned,” and then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama did not, and he asked if either would be able to “ever nominate someone to the Supreme Court who disagrees with you on this issue.” From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    MODERATOR BOB SCHIEFFER: All right. Let's stop there and go to another question. And this one goes to Senator McCain. Senator McCain, you believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Senator Obama, you believe it shouldn't. Could either of you ever nominate someone to the Supreme Court who disagrees with you on this issue? Senator McCain?

    [...]

    SCHIEFFER: But even if it was someone -- even someone who had a history of being for abortion rights, you would consider them? [Commission on Presidential Debates, 10/15/08]

    2000 Election:

    PBS NewsHour Moderator Jim Lehrer Asked George W. Bush And Al Gore If Their Judicial Appointments Would Depend On Their Stance On Abortion. During the October 3, 2000, presidential debate, moderator Jim Lehrer asked both then-Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush and then-Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore whether voters should assume their judicial appointments -- including to the Supreme Court -- would hew to the candidates’ stances on abortion. From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    MODERATOR JIM LEHRER: On the Supreme Court question. Should a voter assume -- you're pro-life.

    [...]

    MODERATOR: Should a voter assume that all judicial appointments you make to the supreme court or any other court, federal court, will also be pro-life? [Commission on Presidential Debates, 10/3/00]

    1992 Election:

    ABC News Moderator Hal Bruno Invoked Supreme Court And Judicial Appointments As Part Of A Series Of Questions About Abortion. During the 1992 vice presidential debate between then-vice presidential candidates Democrat Al Gore, Republican Dan Quayle, and independent James Stockdale, moderator Hal Bruno asked the candidates about their stance on abortion and invoked the Supreme Court and judicial appointments. From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    MODERATOR HAL BRUNO: Abortion rights has been a bitter controversy in this country for almost 20 years. It's been heightened by the recent Supreme Court decisions. So I'll make it very simple in this question: Where do each of you stand on the issue? What actions will your president's administration take on the abortion question? Will it be a factor in the appointment of federal judges, especially to the Supreme Court? And I believe that Senator Gore goes first. [Commission on Presidential Debates, 10/13/92]

    1984 Election:

    CBS Panelist Diane Sawyer Asked Ronald Reagan If He Would Have An “Abortion Position” Test For The Appointment Of Justices. During the October 7, 1984, presidential debate, panelist Diane Sawyer asked then-Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan a series of questions about his position on abortion including if he would “make certain, as your party platform urges, that Federal justices that you appoint be prolife?” From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    PANELIST DIANE SAWYER: I'd like to turn to an area that I think few people enjoy discussing, but that we probably should tonight because the positions of the two candidates are so clearly different and lead to very different policy consequences -- and that is abortion and right to life. I'm exploring for your personal views of abortion and specifically how you would want them applied as public policy.

    First, Mr. President. Do you consider abortion murder or a sin? And second, how hard would you work -- what kind of priority would you give in your second term legislation to make abortion illegal? And specifically, would you make certain, as your party platform urges, that Federal justices that you appoint be prolife? [Commission on Presidential Debates, 10/7/84]

    Questions About Abortion And Religion

    2012 Election:

    ABC News Moderator Martha Raddatz Asked Both Candidates: As Catholics, “What Role” Has Religion “Played In Your Own Personal Views On Abortion?” During the October 11, 2012, vice presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked then-Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and then-Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan -- both self-identified Catholics -- what role their religion played in their views on abortion. From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    MODERATOR MARTHA RADDATZ: This debate is, indeed, historic. We have two Catholic candidates, first time, on a stage such as this. And I would like to ask you both to tell me what role your religion has played in your own personal views on abortion.

    Please talk about how you came to that decision. Talk about how your religion played a part in that. And, please, this is such an emotional issue for so many people in this country... [Commission on Presidential Debates, 10/11/12]

    2004 Election:

    CBS News Moderator Bob Schieffer Asked John Kerry His “Reaction” To Archbishops Saying It Would Be A “Sin” To Vote For Him Because Of His Position On Abortion. During the October 13, 2004, presidential debate, moderator Bob Schieffer asked then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry -- a Catholic -- what his “reaction” was to news that some Catholic archbishops were calling it a “sin” to vote for him due to his position on abortion and stem-cell research. From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    MODERATOR BOB SCHIEFFER: Senator Kerry, a new question for you.

    The New York Times reports that some Catholic archbishops are telling their church members that it would be a sin to vote for a candidate like you because you support a woman's right to choose an abortion and unlimited stem-cell research. 

    What is your reaction to that? [Commission on Presidential Debates, 10/13/04]

    1984 Election:

    NBC News Panelist Norma Quarles Asked Both Candidates About The Archbishop Of Philadelphia’s Opposition To Abortion. During the October 11, 1984, vice presidential debate, panelist Norma Quarles asked both then-Republican vice presidential candidate George H.W. Bush and then-Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro about the archbishop of Philadelphia’s opposition to abortion. Quarles also asked Ferraro whether, “as a devout Catholic,” she is bothered that “so many of the leaders of your church disagree with you, and do you think that you're being treated unfairly in any way by the Catholic church,” as a reference to Ferraro’s pro-choice position. From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    PANELIST NORMA QUARLES: Vice-President Bush, one of the most emotional issues in this campaign has been the separation of church and state. What are your views on the separation of church and state specifically with regard to abortion, and do you believe it was right for the archbishop of Philadelphia to have a letter read in 305 churches urging Catholics to fight abortion with their votes?

    […]

    QUARLES: Fine. Congresswoman Ferraro, what are your views on the separation of church and state with regard to abortions, and do you believe it was right for the archbishop of Philadelphia to have those letters read in the pulpits and urged the voters to fight abortion with their vote?

    […]

    QUARLES: Congresswoman Ferraro, as a devout Catholic, does it trouble you that so many of the leaders of your church disagree with you, and do you think that you're being treated unfairly in any way by the Catholic church? [Commission on Presidential Debates, 10/11/84]

    1980 Election:

    NY Times Panelist Soma Golden Asked Candidates About Warnings To Catholics That It Is A Sin To Vote For A Candidate Who Supports Abortion. During the Sept. 21, 1980, presidential debate between then-Republican candidate Ronald Reagan and then-independent candidate John Anderson, panelist Soma Golden asked both men about “Cardinal Medeiros of Boston,” who “warned Catholics that it's sinful to vote for candidates who favor abortion.” From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    PANELIST SOMA GOLDEN: I'd like to switch the focus from inflation to God. This week, Cardinal Medeiros of Boston warned Catholics that it's sinful to vote for candidates who favor abortion. This did not defeat the two men he opposed, but it did raise questions about the roles of church and state. You. Mr. Reagan, have endorsed the participation of fundamentalist churches in your campaign. And you, Mr. Anderson, have tried three times to amend the Constitution to recognize the, quote, “law and authority,” unquote, of Jesus Christ. My question: Do you approve of the Church's actions this week in Boston? And should a President be guided by organized religion on issues like abortion, equal rights, and defense spending?

    […]

    GOLDEN: Okay. I would point out that churches are tax-exempt institutions, and I'll repeat my question. Do you approve the Church's action this week in Boston, and should a President be guided by organized religion on issues like abortion, equal rights and defense spending? [Commission on Presidential Debates, 9/21/80]

    Questions Perpetuating Abortion Stigma

    2004 Election:

    Only Abortion Question Asked In Debate Was Framed Around A Voter Who Believes “Abortion Is Murder.” During the October 8, 2004, town hall-style debate, ABC News moderator Charles Gibson selected the audience member questions that were asked. The only abortion question posed in that debate came from an audience member who asked what the candidates would say to a voter “who believed abortion is murder.” Both then-Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and then-Republican candidate George W. Bush were allowed to respond. Questions like these that frame abortion as an immoral or unethical practice perpetuate abortion stigma -- the belief that the safe and legal medical practice is morally wrong or socially unacceptable. From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    DEBATE MODERATOR CHARLES GIBSON: Going to go to the final two questions now, and the first one will be for Senator Kerry. And this comes from Sarah Degenhart.

    SARAH DEGENHART: Senator Kerry, suppose you are speaking with a voter who believed abortion is murder and the voter asked for reassurance that his or her tax dollars would not go to support abortion, what would you say to that person? [Commission on Presidential Debates. 10/8/04]

    1988 Election:

    Panelist Asked Candidates A Question That Compared Abortion To “Killing.” During the Sept. 25, 1988, presidential debate between then-Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis and then-Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush, Orlando Sentinel panelist Ann Groer asked whether Dukakis’ pro-choice stance on abortion conflicted with his position against the death penalty because “in the minds of many people, [abortion is] also killing.” Groer also referenced Dukakis’ pro-choice position as supporting “abortion on demand,” a phrase misleadingly used by those who oppose abortion. From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    PANELIST ANN GROER: Governor Dukakis, is there a conflict between your opposition to the death penalty and your support for abortion on demand, even though in the minds of many people, that's also killing? [Commission on Presidential Debates, 9/25/88]

    1984 Election:

    CBS' Diane Sawyer Asked If Abortion Is “Murder Or A Sin” And How The Pro-Choice Candidate Felt About “The Consequence” Of There Being “1.5 Million” Legal Abortions. During the October 7, 1984, presidential debate between then-Republican candidate Ronald Reagan and then-Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, CBS News panelist Diane Sawyer asked both candidates if they considered abortion “murder or a sin.” From the Commission on Presidential Debates’ transcript:

    PANELIST DIANE SAWYER: First, [Ronald Reagan]. Do you consider abortion murder or a sin? And second, how hard would you work -- what kind of priority would you give in your second term legislation to make abortion illegal?

    […]

    SAWYER: Mr. Mondale, to turn to you, do you consider abortion a murder or a sin? And bridging from what President Reagan said, he has written that if society doesn't know whether life does -- human life, in fact, does begin at conception, as long as there is a doubt, that the unborn child should at least be given the benefit of the doubt and that there should be protection for that unborn child. [Commission on Presidential Debates, 10/7/84]

    METHODOLOGY

    Media Matters searched all transcripts available on the Commission on Presidential Debates using the terms “abortion,” “Roe,” “Wade,” “birth control,” “contraception,” “pro-choice,” “pro-life,” “life of the mother,” ” right to choose," “sanctity of life,” “culture of life,” and “Planned Parenthood” to identify all moderator or panelist questions to candidates addressing an abortion-related topic. The 1976 vice presidential debate was not included in the study since a transcript was not available. If a moderator or panelist asked a follow-up question after a candidate responded, those were counted as additional questions. A secondary code was also applied when a moderator or panelist question invoked judicial appointment litmus tests, cited religion, or negatively framed abortion. These secondary coding categories were non-exclusive. Two coders reviewed all questions and had to agree on inclusion as an abortion-related question and on any applicable secondary coding. While we identified all the questions asked by moderators, panelists or audience members in town-hall debates about abortion and the three abortion-related topics described above, not all are included in this item.