Liberals And Conservatives Are Wondering Why This Question Hasn’t Come Up In The Democratic Debates

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by MSNBC

As Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders prepare to take the stage for their next debate on Thursday night, people on both sides of the political aisle are hoping they’ll have to address one issue in particular: abortion.

There have been five Democratic debates so far, but none has included a question asking the candidates to detail their positions on reproductive health. Both pro-choice and pro-life groups are frustrated about the omission. In a rare example of solidarity across the reproductive rights divide, they’re both encouraging the moderators of Thursday’s debate to ask a question about abortion.

“It’s kind of a fun moment when you can break the habit of disagreement,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of prominent anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, told Politico this week. “It’s a mystery to me why it does not come up.”

Although Clinton and Sanders both have strong pro-choice records and would likely agree on abortion policy, the groups pressuring them to talk more about the issue argue that American voters could still benefit from hearing them articulate their positions in their own words.

Abortion opponents like SBA List are interested to hear whether the candidates will go on record supporting any restrictions on abortion whatsoever. Abortion rights supporters, meanwhile, are paying attention to the way that Clinton and Sanders choose to frame the issue. They want to see whether they can speak fluently about why issues of reproductive autonomy are connected to women’s economic success, for example.

Plus, abortion is no lightweight policy issue.

Over the past several years, states have passed a record-breaking number of restrictions on the procedure that have shuttered clinics across the country. This spring, the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in a high-profile case regarding a particularly extreme abortion law in Texas that has severely undermined women’s access to reproductive health care. And just a few months ago, a shooter with anti-abortion motivations opened fire in a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people and wounding nine others.

Amid that landscape, Sanders and Clinton have the opportunity to offer specifics about what they would do as president to keep clinics open, police the boundaries of Roe v. Wade, prevent clinic violence, and make abortion more accessible.

“Given that women make up more than fifty percent of the voting population and face the near daily threats to their right to reproductive freedom in this country, at the federal and state level, and in the courts, we find the lack of questions on this subject to be shameful and a real disservice to voters,” Joel Foster, the political director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, wrote in a letter addressed to the two moderators of this week’s debate.

Abortion rights supporters, who have been rallying around the hashtag #AskAboutAbortion, point out that omitting questions about abortion on the debate stage ultimately serves to downplay the importance of the issue.

“Like every other economic, political or progressive issue the debates have dignified with a question, this topic is more than worthy of our candidates’ attention and any network’s airtime,” notes a NARAL post published on Medium on Wednesday.

Clinton, who has been endorsed by major abortion rights groups, has recently sharpened her pro-choice rhetoric on the campaign trail. She’s backed off the apologetic framing that was popularized in the 1990s — the refrain that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” — and has spoken forcefully about the need to make abortion more affordable for impoverished women.

Sanders has also recently stepped up his policy positions on the issue. He called for repealing the Hyde Amendment, the decades-old federal policy that prevents low-income women from being able to access affordable abortion services, shortly after Clinton started campaigning hard on this topic. And just this week, he committed to repeal a similar federal policy — the Helms Amendment, which blocks abortion funds for women in developing countries, and which Clinton has not yet committed to repealing altogether.