What abortion activists want from the 2020 candidates

"What is their visionary proposal... when clinics are being shuttered?"

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Image

Edit: Diana  Ofosu/ ThinkProgress
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Image Edit: Diana Ofosu/ ThinkProgress

Every Democrat running for president supports abortion rights.

“Every woman deserves safe, affordable access to comprehensive reproductive health care — including abortion,” is a quote that could have come from any one of the 20 candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination and the opportunity to unseat President Donald Trump. This statement just happens to come from Sen. Kamala Harris (CA).

But given the record-high support for Roe v. Wade (establishing the right to abortion) and the dismal state of abortion access (90% of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider), pro-choice activists are calling on the 2020 election cycle’s crop of candidates to go beyond standard declarations of support for a right that exists only in theory for some. The Trump administration has made the suppression of abortion access one of its top priorities, so activists say it stands to reason that Democrats running to supplant him should counter the president with bold ideas on expanding access for patients who currently fall through the cracks.

“We are excited for people to support abortion rights, but we also know that rights alone aren’t enough,” said Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), an organization that helps people pay for the abortion services that insurance doesn’t cover — expenses that can run upwards of $3,500.


Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive justice advocate who started #AskAboutAbortion campaign during the 2016 primaries, emphasized that she would like to see specifics. “What is their visionary proposal, particularly when clinics are being shuttered in the states and people have to do these ridiculous 72-hour waiting periods?” she asked.

None of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination have released detailed proposals on abortion, most likely because these are the early days of a long campaign. When candidates make national headlines for talking about abortion, it’s typically because they’re responding to questions about whether they support performing abortions “up until the moment of birth.” It’s an inquiry that’s not rooted in reality, but asked because abortion opponents have manufactured a crisis about infanticide, and many within media have taken the bait.

Pro-choice activists say it’s especially important for candidates to dispute these lies given that the president has escalated his rhetoric about later abortions. On Saturday, Trump lied again about how abortions later in pregnancy work, saying a doctor and mother weigh whether to “execute” after a baby is born. Sens. Cory Booker (NJ) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pushed back on Twitter. 

“This is what you call a lie,” tweeted Booker, one of two candidates to dispute Trump.

Sanders tweeted, “This is completely false, and what a pathological liar and misogynist sounds like when he talks about abortion.”


Pro-choice activists view Trump’s rhetoric as fear-mongering to rile up his base. As people who’ve had abortions later in pregnancy have said time and time again, it doesn’t work the way Trump describes it.

“There are traps being set rhetorically already by Republicans and by the anti-choice movement… the answer to that is to reaffirm that the majority of Americans, seven in 10, fall on the side of us and support legal access to abortion and don’t think the government should intervene between a woman and her doctor,” said Amanda Thayer, deputy national communications director at NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Melanie Newman, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s senior vice president of communications and culture, echoed those sentiments. She asserted that candidates need to “call out the lies” and “correct the record about abortion later in pregnancy,” as well as elevate the “real motives” underlying the Trump administration’s anti-abortion rhetoric.

“Candidates running for office must speak out against the gag rule [a policy that bars abortion providers from the only federal family planning program] and lay out a bold vision to not only protect, but also expand access to health care,” Newman said in a statement to ThinkProgress.


ThinkProgress spoke with a number of activists who want candidates to talk proactively about abortion, and many said they would prefer it to be through a reproductive justice framework. This means empowering people to decide either to have or not to have children, and centering on the most marginalized communities.

“We want to see candidates really understand that abortion access is not just some abstract social issue, the way it’s often talked about and referenced in a lot of the coverage… It’s really not a social issue — it’s an economic issue and anyone running in 2020 should have a fundamental understanding of that,” Thayer said. “They could demonstrate that by saying it.”

It’s not that no candidate ever talks about abortion — it’s that no candidate talks about it enough, said Bracey Sherman, an award-winning activist who is known as the “Beyoncé” of abortion storytelling.

“There are these deeper issues that we need to tease out,” said Bracey Sherman.

“Are they going to stop the [Justice Department] from prosecuting someone who manages their own abortion? Are they going to work with [the Department of Health and Human Services] to expand telemedicine abortion and make medication abortion not only available in pharmacies — because right now, it’s only available in clinics — but can we push for it to be over the counter?” Bracey Sherman asked. “Fundamentally, do they believe young people have a right to abortion and do they stand against parental involvement laws?”

Although the candidates have not laid out their positions, some activists want them to do so as soon as possible. Their rationale is simple: The way candidates talk about abortion provides key insights into how they think about a range of other issues, because any discussion about abortion rights boils down to individual autonomy.

For example, it would be useful to know whether the presidential candidates support federal prisons paying for abortion services. Currently, people who are incarcerated have to come up with the funds themselves because they lose private or public insurance when they enter federal prison. A candidate’s response would illuminate whether he or she believes incarcerated people are entitled to the same health care access as everyone else.

In recent years, pro-choice activists have coalesced around ending restrictions on public funding for abortion. For activists, abolishing the Hyde Amendment is about addressing a long legacy of racial inequity, as more than half of female Medicaid enrollees of reproductive age subjected to coverage restrictions are women of color.

“We’re very grateful for the right to legal abortion, but there are far too many hassles and far too much hustling that has to happen in order to get one,” said Hernandez, who works for NNAF. “Last year, we had 150,000 people call for help and our member abortion funds were able to help about a fifth of them,” she said.

A major feat for activists came in 2016, when lifting this federal ban and having Medicaid pay for abortion was officially enshrined as part of the Democratic Party platform.

“I can’t assume that just because you say you’re pro-choice means you support lifting abortion coverage bans,” said Destiny Lopez, co-director of the All Above All Action Fund, a coalition focused on repealing Hyde. I’m looking for folks to go a step further and really name that they support ensuring that every person, regardless of how much money they make or where they live or the type of insurance they have, should be able to access abortion care.”

A ThinkProgress analysis found nearly every Democrat running for president supports repealing the Hyde Amendment, which has been federal law since 1976 and is usually passed annually through appropriations. It is rare, however, for these candidates to be vocal about the matter.

ThinkProgress asked candidates whether they support using federal dollars to pay for abortion services. As of this writing, the campaigns of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI); former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam; Rep. Seth Moulton (MA); Sanders; Rep. Eric Swalwell (CA), and activist Marianne Williamson responded that they do.

The campaigns for the other 11 candidates did not immediately respond. But most of the other candidates have, in the past, supported legislation that would permit federal dollars to pay for abortion care. Booker, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Kamala Harris (CA), and Elizabeth Warren (MA) are co-sponsors of Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, which would outlaw any existing restriction on using federal funds for abortion. Warren expressed support for repealing Hyde on Monday. Separately, Gillibrand, Harris, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) have co-sponsored the Senate EACH Woman Act, a bill that would require existing federal programs to pay for abortion services. The latter measure has been championed by All Above All, a reproductive justice coalition. 

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) have co-sponsored the House version of the EACH Woman Act. Ryan is also a co-sponsor of the House Medicare for All bill. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg doesn’t hold federal office, so he cannot sponsor such legislation. Nevertheless, he did tell the American Civil Liberties Union that he supports public funding for abortion.

Andrew Yang’s position is unclear. He has no record because he’s never held political office, and his campaign did not respond to request for comment.

While in Congress from 2013 to 2019, John Delaney did not support the EACH Woman Act. His campaign also did not respond to request for comment.  

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who announced his presidential run last week, began his long Senate career in 1973 saying that Roe went “too far.” In 1976, he voted for the Hyde Amendment, which President Gerald Ford (R) then signed into law. Biden was one of two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote for the 1982 Hatch Amendment, which would have voided Roe by returning the right to abortion to states. When the amendment came up for a full Senate vote the following year, however, Biden opposed it.

Biden now says he supports Roe, but it’s still unclear where he lands on Hyde. His spokesman, Bill Russo, did not respond to requests for comment. In a March interview with The New York Times, Russo affirmed Biden’s support for Roe, but declined to comment on specific policies, including public funding for the medical procedure. The last time Biden appears to have commented on this was in his 2007 memoir, when he wrote he still opposed federal funding for abortion services.

ThinkProgress also reached out to every campaign for the Democratic nomination for comment about activists’ desire to hear candidates proactively talk about expanding access. By the time of publication, the Inslee, Sanders, Swalwell, and Williamson campaigns were the only ones to respond. 

“Women’s rights are under unprecedented, concerted attack, and Bernie believes we must fight back against any efforts to undermine a woman’s right to choose at the state, federal, and local level,” said Sanders’ policy director, Josh Orton, formerly a consultant for NARAL. “This means, as president, appointing federal judges that respect Roe, but also understand that these state laws fundamentally undermine a women’s right to choose.

“In addition, Bernie believes that we must reform our system of campaign finance reform, because many of these attacks are being forwarded by extreme and well-funded national organizations,” he added.

The Swalwell campaign pointed to his support for the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2017, which would have invalidated any state laws that singled out abortion providers for penalties or made it harder to access abortion without a substantial medical reason. Every Democratic congressional member running for president, with the exception of Gabbard and Delaney, co-sponsored this bill. The bill, like the EACH Woman Act, stalled after it was introduced.

The Inslee campaign also pointed to his record on abortion rights, like his signing of a bill that mandates all plans that cover maternity care also cover abortion as Washington’s governor last year, or voting against the Hyde Amendment as a congressman in 1993. 

The Williamson campaign shared a list of proposals she supports, including bills in Congress like the Women’s Health Protection Act and the EACH Woman Act. The campaign also said she’d support providing protection from law enforcement to reproductive health professionals when they feel threatened.

This post has been updated to include Bracey Sherman started the #AskAboutAbortion campaign.