The missed opportunity to have a serious conversation about abortion policy

Let’s change how we discuss abortion on the national stage.

Mike Pence and Tim Kaine on the vice presidential debate stage. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Pool via AP Photos
Mike Pence and Tim Kaine on the vice presidential debate stage. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Pool via AP Photos

For months, activists on both sides of the political aisle have been pressuring debate moderators to ask candidates about abortion, raising questions about why this policy issue isn’t getting any time on the national stage.

The issue did come up at the vice presidential debate in Farmville, Virginia on Tuesday night — but not because of moderator Elaine Quijano.

Instead, in response to a question from Quijano about how the two candidates struggle to balance their personal faith and public policy-making, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) quickly pivoted to abortion, saying that his faith “begins with cherishing the dignity, the worth, the value, of every human life.” Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), who is personally opposed to abortion but believes it should remain legally available, followed up by saying he trusts women to make this moral choice for themselves.

While Kaine’s response was fairly well-received in pro-choice circles — where “trust women” is a guiding mantra — the exchange was ultimately situated in a religious and moral context that does a disservice to the bigger issue.

Abortion rights is a topic that’s long been relegated to the “social issues” sphere. But, while plenty of Americans’ personal views on abortion are influenced by moral principles, focusing the discussion on questions of morality obscures the fact that it’s also a serious policy matter with huge economic consequences for millions of families.


Sticking to a moral framework about whether the unborn deserve protection, which is how Pence framed his position, doesn’t capture the nuanced views that real Americans hold. Like Kaine, a huge swath of the American public don’t believe their moral position on abortion should prevent other people from accessing the procedure.

The real policy question, then, becomes one of access. If a pregnant woman seeks an abortion, what should the experience be like? What barriers, if any, should the government be allowed to place in her way? Should insurance plans cover abortion procedures? If abortion is restricted, should women face criminal punishment for ending a pregnancy?

There are also policy goals to more thoughtfully consider. If lawmakers’ stated policy goal is to reduce abortion, do they support scientifically proven methods to accomplish this, like expanding access to long-acting birth control? If lawmakers’ stated policy goal is to protect women’s health, what about the recent Supreme Court ruling that found no evidence one of the country’s most popular abortion restrictions can actually do this?

This is a rich policy space — and one that Mike Pence is particularly well-suited to discuss, since restricting access to women’s health care has been one of his top legislative priorities during his time in office.


In the governor’s mansion, Pence served as the primary architect for what eventually became a national strategy to defund Planned Parenthood and presided over anti-abortion policies so extreme that even some of his fellow Republicans spoke out against them. He signed every single abortion restriction that crossed his desk, including, most recently, a provision that requires aborted fetuses to receive what amounts to a funeral.

Interrogating those legislative priorities is important, especially since there’s a lot of evidence they’ve had disastrous consequences in the state of Indiana. But it requires treating abortion seriously, as a concrete health policy issue rather than as an esoteric moral question.

Instead, by avoiding abortion policy questions, presidential debate moderators have allowed the issue to be defined in the moral terms that right-wing players feel most comfortable with. When abortion has been discussed on the national stage, it’s been raised only by conservative players. First, during a Fox News town hall, Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were asked if there are “any circumstances” under which abortion should be illegal — effectively a plea to consider the rights of unborn children. And then, during last night’s vice presidential debate, Pence had the opportunity to focus on the “sanctity of life,” which is highly subjective, and the specter of “partial-birth abortion,” which is not a real medical procedure.

It’s a missed opportunity to have a serious conversation. And until we refocus the way we talk about abortion more broadly — leaving space for the policy complexity instead of sticking to the traditional ideological framework — our national dialogue is going to suffer.