Why Were Reproductive Rights Left Out Of Last Night’s Democratic Debate?

Something was missing from the democratic debate last night. Well, a lot of somethings. But one thing specifically stood out to me as a reproductive justice activist and writer: there were zero questions about abortion. The moderators didn’t even reference it by euphemism. There was no “Tell us what you think about Planned Parenthood” or “We recently marked the anniversary of Roe v. Wade” or “How would you protect a woman’s right to choose?” Nothing. Zip. Zilch.

This omission — on the supposedly “liberal” media channel, MSNBC — is particularly glaring because the candidates themselves have made it an issue. In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both come out unequivocally against the four decade-long punishment of the poor and communities of color perpetrated by the Hyde Amendmentwhich prohibits federal funding for abortion (despite what you may have heard from the republicans perpetually investigating Planned Parenthood).

Considering every Democratic president and any Democratic member of Congress who has voted for a federal budget since 1976 has at the very least tacitly approved of Hyde, a unified democratic presidential platform to abolish it — something that could be done unilaterally in their first year by refusing to sign a budget with a coverage ban attached — IS HISTORIC. While 86% of voters think someone’s economic status or health insurance provider shouldn’t affect their access to abortion, politicians and corporate media are lagging behind the cultural shift. This means abortion access is still contentious even if the electorate has largely decided how they feel about it and the mass of people tweeting #AskAboutAbortion last night want to hear the candidates’ plans to affirm and expand our rights.

We aren’t just shouting about it because we’re a bunch of angry feminists hoping to foment outrage about something. Abortion access has been incrementally diminished since Roe with a major acceleration over the past few years: more than one-quarter of the 1074 abortion restrictions passed have been enacted since 2011. Just in 2015, abortion restrictions were introduced in 46 states. If you were feeling comfortable or smug about your state, but don’t live in Nevada, North Dakota, or Utah, you need to check out this 22 second video from National Partnership for Women & Families:

The channel hosting the debate has covered the outbreak of laws as well as the legal challenges by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Whole Woman’s Health, and others as they’ve wound through state and circuit courts all the way to the highest court in the land. The first abortion case in eight years is going to be heard next month at the Supreme Court — but NO ONE has been able to think of a question about reproductive rights at the democratic debates?

Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow, and MSNBC should collectively be ashamed of themselves. They had time to ask a question about Barry Goldwater and electability, but not about the one in four insured by Medicaid experiencing an unwanted pregnancy who is forced to carry to term against their will? And don’t tell me that they weren’t asking about “social issues” because “the candidates agree on 90% of them. Agreeing that an issue is important is NOT THE SAME THING as having THE SAME PLAN. Don’t just tell me what you BELIEVE, tell me what you’re going TO DO.

Example question on Hyde/reproductive rights: “Senator/Madam Secretary, you’ve come out against the Hyde Amendment; would you veto a budget with Hyde attached?”

THIS IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. Especially for people who have covered politics in the US for as long as Todd and Maddow.
We still don’t know that much about either of their plans on topics where they agree. The point of the primary debates is for primary voters — who are largely on the same side of the aisle as the candidates — to know the difference in the plans. Does no one remember the endless health care questions from 2008? It was and remains important for us to know more than “I support a woman’s right to choose” or “All Americans should have healthcare.” Obama and Clinton both were for all of us having access to healthcare in their soundbites, but their plans were very different. Many of us chose a candidate based on that particular issue — I know I sure did. I went back to my home state of Indiana, swallowed my anxiety, and door knocked for Obama the two days before the election. I’d been up for 40-something hours when election returns were coming in and stayed awake to watch Indiana turn blue on the map. I’d supported him since early in the primary race because I liked his plan better.

So, when do I get to hear the kind of policy/plan debate questions we had eight years ago? What are the candidate’s priorities in the first 100 days? What do they think they can accomplish without Congress? What will they need down ticket support on to push through the legislature?

And I don’t just mean on abortion. The rampant restrictions have made reproductive rights my most pressing concern, but many who like things about both candidates and/or want the strongest campaign from the democrat in the general are waiting to hear about a whole host of things.

After Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, we only have Nevada and South Carolina ahead of Super Tuesday on March 1 when fifteen contests are scheduled. We’re only scheduled to see one debate between now and then — February 11th in Milwaukee, WI. Let’s hope PBS and the Wisconsin Democratic Party can deliver a more on-point debate.