Why Do They Refuse to Ask About Abortion at the Democratic Debates?

The assumption that all the Democratic candidates will act the same way to protect reproductive rights is wrong

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The NBC News/YouTube Democratic debate took place Sunday evening in Charleston, South Carolina.

It's not the questions Lester Holt, Andrea Mitchell and random YouTube celebrities asked that stood out in Sunday night's Democratic debate. They were predictable, looking for differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on Wall Street, guns, foreign policy and Black Lives Matter. (The moderators didn't seem to care much about Martin O'Malley, but to be fair, it seems voters don't either.)

What stood out was the question they didn't ask, the question they haven't asked in any of the Democratic debates, like it's some kind of filthy taboo: the question about abortion.

It's remarkable how many pro-choice progressives believe we don't need to ask about abortion at these debates, either because abortion is already "the law of the land" or because there are no differences among the candidates.

Roe v. Wade, of course, made abortion legal across the country, but in the years since, that essential right has been chipped and chiseled away until what's left is little more than a crude rendering of that right. If you are a poor woman in this country — especially a woman of color, especially in a rural area, especially in a red state — the right to an abortion may very well be a meaningless abstraction.

In the past few years, conservative state legislators and governors, working hand-in-hand with anti-abortion activists, have become increasingly clever and sophisticated about making it more and more difficult for women to obtain abortions. They've imposed mandatory waiting periods, and increased them to as long as three days. They've crafted absurd and unnecessary regulations on abortion clinics, all in the name of "women's health," forcing many to shut down. They make women look at ultrasounds of their pregnancies (because apparently women don't know what being pregnant actually means), and force doctors to read lectures written by politicians, often containing medically inaccurate information. They refuse to allow government-provided insurance to pay for a procedure that is a safe, standard and necessary part of health care.

Add all this up, and here's what you get: A woman who needs an abortion may have to drive hundreds of miles to a clinic (because all the ones near her closed down), take several days off work (because of travel on top of the mandatory waiting period), and figure out how to pay for the abortion itself, in addition to a place to stay and care for the children she, statistically speaking, probably already has.

For many women, that makes abortion impossible to obtain — which is why an increasing number are attempting to self-abort. (A first-trimester abortion is one of the safest procedures around, but self-abortions can easily be dangerous, even deadly.)

This is an urgent crisis. And the assumption that this issue is settled, and that all the Democratic candidates will act the same way as president to protect reproductive rights, is simply wrong. Yes, Martin O'Malley, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are all pro-choice, but that isn't good enough. Simply promising to veto abortion restrictions passed by a Republican Congress isn't how we protect access to abortion, not when state legislatures are making it increasingly difficult for the most vulnerable women to get one.

Abortion cuts across issue lines. It's a moral and religious issue, a social issue and, for women facing a pregnancy and a child they cannot afford or are not ready for, an issue that gets to the heart of economic security and being able to determine one's own life course. (It's also an economic issue for taxpayers; states pay over $11 billion a year for unintended pregnancies according to one conservative estimate.) In a recent amicus brief to the Supreme Court in a case challenging Texas's restrictive new anti-abortion law, more than 100 attorneys and judges wrote about the abortions they had, and how their own successes would be impossible without them. "To the world, I am an attorney who had an abortion, and, to myself, I am an attorney because I had an abortion," wrote one.

Americans deserve to hear at the debates what proactive steps the candidates will take not just to protect the right to abortion, but how they will expand access. How will they restore government funds to pay for the procedure? How will they stop the states from closing down clinics? How will they lead a national conversation that questions the assumptions that abortion is somehow always a difficult decision, or even a moral failure?

But that answer won't come if the question goes unasked. In debate after debate, we've watched moderators pretend like reproductive rights and justice are settled issues — or that they don't exist at all. It's time to talk about it.

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