At December’s debate, moderators need to get some new questions about abortion

Image of a microphone on a stand with a hashtag  "Ask About Abortion"

Citation Ceci Freed / Media Matters

Update (12/18/19): On December 17, Sodexo and Loyola Marymount University reached an agreement with the union Unite Here Local 11 to resolve their labor dispute, ensuring the Democratic debate will go on as planned on Thursday with the candidates who have qualified.

On December 19, Democratic presidential candidates will come together in Los Angeles, California, for the sixth debate of the 2020 primary. The debate moderators from PBS NewsHour and Politico need to retire the stale questions previous moderators have asked about abortion and instead ask candidates more specific and in-depth questions about their plans to protect or expand abortion access and reproductive rights -- beyond codifying Roe v. Wade.

This debate will be one of the last opportunities for many people to see the candidates talk about abortion before the crucial Iowa caucuses, which begin the primary voting process in early February (though debates will continue until at least the end of that month).

Of note, candidates who have qualified for the debate recently announced they would boycott the debate due to an ongoing labor dispute between the debate’s venue, Loyola Marymount University and its food service company, Sodexo. Currently, it’s unclear whether the dispute will be resolved or if the venue will be changed for the debate.

Thus far in the 2020 Democratic debate cycle, abortion has been discussed in the following ways:

  • Moderators have asked only seven questions about abortion.
  • Candidates have mentioned abortion or reproductive rights 15 times without being prompted by the moderators.
  • The word “abortion” has been used 30 times, with nine mentions from three moderators in total, and 11 mentions from six candidates (two of whom have since dropped out).
  • The debates have devoted 23 minutes and 36 seconds out of approximately 17 hours in total to discussions of abortion or reproductive rights.

Unfortunately, the sparse and shallow questions about abortion and reproductive rights have not yielded a productive conversation about the dire state of reproductive health and abortion rights in the United States. The majority of questions have focused on whether candidates would push for the codification of Roe to protect abortion access in the event the Supreme Court overturns or weakens the decision. While the Supreme Court could end up knocking Roe down, as New York magazine’s Irin Carmon explained, the codification of Roe might not be a viable solution for a future president:

Mother Jones’ Becca Andrews further noted that “should Republicans keep control of the Senate in 2020—which seems likely at this point—it would be next to impossible to pass such a law” to codify Roe.

In addition to failing to get beyond questions of Roe, two of the seven questions moderators asked were taken straight from the news cycles of right-wing media outrage, with moderators inquiring whether Democrats believed in any limits on abortion (an inaccurate right-wing frame) and if the candidates would theoretically welcome anti-abortion Democrats into the party. Unsurprisingly, right-wing media loved these questions and were quick to allege that Democrats’ answers prove the party is too “extreme” for voters.

In 2016, abortion rights advocate Renee Bracey Sherman founded the #AskAboutAbortion campaign in order “to have a conversation about the different plans candidates proposed to protect and expand the legal right to an abortion.” The campaign was revived this year after moderators in some debates failed to ask a single question about the topic.

Moderators for December’s debate can improve on past performances by making sure they don’t just #AskAboutAbortion, but also start a valuable and realistic conversation about securing abortion access in 2020 and beyond.