The first five Democratic presidential debates of the 2016 election gave the general public an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the platforms of the party’s leading candidates. Starting in October, each of the five televised debates explored topics that have been driving the news cycle for most of 2015 and 2016: foreign policy and terrorism, Wall Street influence, the Clinton email scandal, gun control, the death penalty—even the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement was addressed on the podium.
But activists and nonprofit groups have taken notice of one glaring absence. It’s a topic that has dominated the news cycle for months—between the Planned Parenthood videos, mass shootings at clinics, and a Supreme Court abortion clinic case poised to ripple through state laws all over the country—yet has never been introduced as a Democratic party presidential debate question during the current election. That missing topic is abortion.
With #AskAboutAbortion, advocacy groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, along with a slew of activists around the country, have been criticizing the mysterious lack of debate questions revolving around reproductive rights. Both leading candidates—Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—have publicly discussed their abortion platforms on Twitter and in campaign materials, yet neither has been asked a single question about the issue by debate moderators.
This Thursday, when PBS NewsHour hosts the sixth debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it will be the first event with an all-female moderator lineup. With Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff asking the questions, activists are hoping that abortion will finally be discussed. Repeated calls and emails to PBS NewsHour‘s press team on Wednesday, asking about plans to address abortion at this week’s debate, were not met with a response.
NARAL board member Renee Bracey Sherman is one person who has been tweeting at debate moderators repeatedly, asking why abortion is not on the table.
“We are at a moment when tons of abortion clinics are being closed across the country and people are having to skip meals just to afford healthcare,” Bracey Sherman told the Daily Dot in an email Wednesday. “Communities of color are disproportionately unable to access contraception and are challenged financially when trying to access an abortion. This isn’t right. I, and many others, want to know what they’re planning to do to turn the tide.”
Bracey Sherman expressed frustration especially with the fact that Republican debates have addressed abortion at length, something she said allows the conservative right to “define the narrative for voters.”
She’s not the only one who is upset by the silence around abortion during the debates. Activist Shelby Knox, who became famous as a teenage crusader for accurate sex education in her home state of Texas, called the omission “glaring” and “disturbing,” and said that each candidate’s generally pro-choice statements on the campaign trail are not informative enough.
“We want to hear specifics about how each candidate will address the sharp decline in access to abortion and all other forms of reproductive health care, especially for the most marginalized people,” said Knox in a Wednesday email to the Daily Dot. “We want to hear about decreased access to primary healthcare due to the attacks on Planned Parenthood, and about their plans to repeal the Hyde amendment.”
One surprising aspect of the campaign to get debate mods to ask abortion-related questions is that both pro-choice and anti-abortion activists appear to want the same thing. On Twitter, the #AskAboutAbortion hashtag is mostly populated by pro-choice advocates who want candidates grilled about the Hyde Amendment and Planned Parenthood protections, but anti-abortion advocates who want candidates to address late-term abortion laws are also making their voices heard.
In a Politico story Tuesday, the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List expressed a strong desire to see abortion questions raised on the debate podium as well. Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser told Politico that while she certainly desires different answers from the candidates than those the on the opposing side of the issue are hoping for, she’s in agreement that the topic of abortion should at least be on the menu.
“It’s a mystery to me why it does not come up,” Dannenfelser said in the interview, wondering whether the abortion debate blackout might be rooted in “commentators [that] are sympathetic to the abortion position.”
That same sense of perplexity was echoed on the other side of the issue—wildly divergent underlying goals notwithstanding—as each pro-choice activist the Daily Dot spoke to referred to abortion’s missing place on the debate stage as an enigma.
“Decisions about pregnancy are a reality of voters’ lives and the absence of abortion from the debates is as baffling as it is offensive,” said Destiny Lopez, co-director of the All* Above All campaign to lift bans on abortion coverage. “In an election where income inequality and gender are dominating the conversation, and where both candidates have called to lift the Hyde Amendment, it’s a perfect opportunity to ask about abortion.”
While reproductive rights policy’s debate absence is puzzling, both of the leading Democratic candidates have taken to social media to make statements about reproductive rights—as evidenced by tweets from Clinton that call for increased funding for Planned Parenthood and the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, and tweets from Sanders echoing the sentiments a week later.
As president, I will do everything that I can to protect and preserve a woman’s right to an abortion. #Roe43— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 22, 2016
"I would like to see Planned Parenthood even get more funding." How to ensure all women have access to health care: https://t.co/kvD47CkwRR— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) January 15, 2016
But to Bracey Sherman, Twitter is a highly inadequate way of addressing a major platform point. She said her major concerns were a lack of clarity around the candidates’ specific plans around abortion and also the likelihood that a “majority of voters won’t see those tweets.”
“While Sanders says he supports reproductive healthcare, abortion care isn’t mentioned in his healthcare plan. This concerns me,” said Bracey Sherman. “Tweets aren’t policy plans. Voters deserve to hear more.”
Bracey Sherman referred specifically to the lack of reproductive health information in Sanders’s health plan, though Sanders does mention abortion protections in a separate “women’s rights” statement. Clinton also addresses reproductive rights, with a focus on saving Planned Parenthood, in her healthcare plan and her women’s rights plan. But both platforms are just vague enough to leave voters unclear on exactly how the candidates plan to protect women’s access to abortion.
Knox told the Daily Dot that “it’s not enough just to be pro-choice.”
“I want a president who understands all the intersections of reproductive freedom,” said Knox, “and a media that’s willing to ask the questions that help voters make informed decisions in this election.”
Illustration by Jason Reed