Hillary Clinton’s incredibly powerful defense of women’s right to choose

Finally, on the national stage, Clinton reframed the policy issue.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question during the third presidential debate. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton answers a question during the third presidential debate. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher

Hillary Clinton mounted a passionate defense of abortion rights at the final presidential debate on Wednesday night — and articulated a progressive vision for approaching the complex policy issue, despite host Chris Wallace’s best attempts to frame the conversation in conservative terms.

The exchange about abortion marked the first time a debate moderator has posed a question on the issue to the presidential candidates.

Clinton, who has staked out an incredibly progressive stance on reproductive rights issues over the course of this campaign, was quick to emphasize that she will “defend women’s rights to make their own health care decisions” because “we have come too far to have that turned back now.”

But the most impressive part of her response was her thoughtful engagement with a complicated subject many Democrats prefer to avoid: abortions that occur later in pregnancy. These procedures are an uncomfortable topic for many people, even those who are broadly supportive of abortion rights.


Clinton pointed out these decisions aren’t ones that families make lightly. They often involve parents grappling with end-of-life care for unborn children who won’t be able to survive outside the womb.

“The kinds of cases that fall at the end of pregnancy are often the most heartbreaking, painful decisions for families to make,” she said. “I have met with women who, toward the end of their pregnancy, get the worst news one could get — that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term, or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy.”

Several of the questions from Wallace, a Fox News veteran, started out from a right-leaning place, and abortion was no exception.

Wallace asked Clinton to defend her support for “partial-birth abortion,” which is not a real medical term but rather a misleading phrase coined by anti-abortion groups to garner support for banning a specific type of abortion procedure that occurs after the first trimester.


Centering the conversation about reproductive rights on these later procedures is a very popular tactic among abortion opponents. Even though so-called “late-term abortions” are actually quite rare in policy terms — the vast majority of abortion patients have their procedures sometime in the first trimester; many of them are early enough in their pregnancies that they can swallow a pill — the anti-choice community hones in on these cases as a way of construing abortion as gruesome, upsetting, and bloody.

Focusing on later abortions helps stoke outrage over the moral implications of a medical procedure that falls squarely in a gray area for most Americans. And once a conversation about abortion gets steered to an emotional place, it can be difficult to reel it back in and refocus on the policy matters at hand.

But Clinton was unfazed. Instead of equivocating about whether the government should restrict the later abortion procedures that may sound upsetting to an outside observer, or apologizing for her support for a procedure that some Americans may feel uncomfortable with, she focused on the difficult real-world circumstances that may lead a couple to end a pregnancy in the second or third trimester.

And when Donald Trump eagerly raised the specter of “late-term abortion,” claiming that Hillary Clinton supports babies being “ripped” from their mother’s wombs in the ninth month of pregnancy, she didn’t blink. Clinton sharply rebuked Trump’s inflammatory language.

“That is not what happens in these cases, and using that kind of scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate,” she said. “You should meet with some of the women I’ve met with — the women I’ve known over the course of my life.”

Clinton’s comments were immediately lauded by female journalists and women’s magazines, held up as an example of Clinton “owning her feminism” and saying “exactly what women needed to hear.”


After decades of mostly male politicians debating whether women should have autonomy over their bodies, it’s no small thing for the first female presidential nominee of a major political party to focus on the lived experiences of women facing complicated pregnancy decisions.

Clinton centered women in a debate that usually treats them as an afterthought. And she defended one of the most controversial aspects of abortion policy without ceding any ground to conservative abortion opponents who would rather talk about the humanity of fetuses than the humanity of women.

This ability to humanize an issue that’s personal to millions of people across the country who grapple with decisions about pregnancy is one of the most important aspects of her candidacy, argues Slate’s Christina Cauterucci.

“When Clinton’s on the stage, it becomes about flesh and blood: women’s bodies and their most private, sacred rights to determine the courses of their own lives,” Cauterucci wrote on Wednesday night. “Of all the reasons it benefits the nation to have more women in politics, this may be the biggest — the shift of women’s lives from the realm of hypotheses into the real world.”