Despite a vigorous social media campaign imploring debate moderators to ask presidential candidates about their positions on reproductive rights, Thursday's Democratic debate passed without a single question on the topic. Moderators Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff emphasized a variety of issues in the February 11 debate, yet they failed to ask "how the candidates plan to empower women to make decisions for their lives and families," as NARAL Pro-Choice America put it.
The omission of a reproductive rights question was particularly disappointing given NARAL's attempts to reach out to moderators prior to the debate through both social media and direct communications. Starting a Twitter campaign to #askaboutabortion, NARAL encouraged moderators to address the topic and urged candidates to more fully explain their respective positions on protecting women's access to abortion care.
Similarly, on February 9, NARAL sent an open letter to Ifill and Woodruff making clear the consequences of excluding discussions of reproductive rights from the February 11 debate. Crediting the rising threat of anti-choice violence against abortion providers, as well as the efforts of “anti-reproductive freedom legislators and governors” to enact “dangerous restrictions on women's health care at near record numbers,” NARAL warned that it was past time for voters to “hear from the Democratic candidates what they plan to do to protect women's reproductive-health care in this country.” They wrote: “we find the lack of questions on this subject to be shameful and a real disservice to voters.”
NARAL was not alone in its criticism of prior debates, nor in its desire for journalists and moderators alike to exert more pressure on candidates about their reproductive rights positions. In a February 10 article, RH Reality Check's editor-in-chief, Jodi Jacobson, explained that moderators and journalists are “becoming complicit in the lies and stigma surrounding abortion care” by failing to ask candidates about abortion.
Unfortunately, the silence on reproductive rights issues during debates has become entirely one-sided. Following the February 6 Republican debate, conservative media hyped candidate Marco Rubio's extreme abortion positions. As Daniel Marans reported for The Huffington Post, however, the failure to raise similar questions during Democratic debates means that “Republicans are setting the terms of the abortion debate,” leaving Democrats with “themselves to thank for having to field abortion questions that play to their weakness rather than their strengths.”
The hesitance to openly discuss abortion during Democratic debates does not seem limited to just moderators. In an article for Jezebel, Anna Merlan noted that when the issue finally came up in the February 11 debate -- spurred by a question about the possibility of electing the first female president -- both candidates shied away from “using the word 'abortion'” at all. Instead, Sen. Bernie Sanders talked about “women having to make a very personal choice,” and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hyped her endorsement from NARAL and said the GOP is trying to “set back women's rights.” According to Merlan, this omission was puzzling given that a “Democratic president would” have to find ways to “work with the large chunk of the GOP who get up each day with the intent of rolling back Roe v. Wade.”
As NARAL explained in its letter, given the fact that women confront “near daily threats to their right to reproductive freedom in this country,” the failure of debate moderators to ask about abortion is “shameful and a real disservice to voters.” As the Supreme Court prepares to hear “the most important abortion case in decades,” about a Texas law imposing restrictive rules on abortion clinics, it is crucial now more than ever that moderators ask candidates about abortion and encourage them to explain the effects their policies will have on women's access to safe, legal, and affordable care.