Why won’t Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton say ‘abortion’ in primetime? Republicans sure are.


On Monday afternoon, a committee in the Florida Legislature advanced a piece of legislation that would make performing an abortion or operating a clinic that provides abortion services a first-degree felony. If passed, doctors could face up to 30 years in prison for providing constitutionally protected medical care.

“The bill recognizes that both the mother and the baby are citizens of the state of Florida… and we are therefore compelled to protect their lives,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, as reported by the Miami Herald.

The proposal is unconstitutional (af) and stands virtually no chance of surviving a legal challenge, but the fact that such an extreme piece of legislation made it out of committee is significant. When it comes to restricting women’s constitutional rights and criminalizing basic medical care, anti-abortion lawmakers have graduated from pre-viability bans and clinic regulations to all-encompassing bans. The subtext has become, well, text.

Flash forward a few hours to CNN’s Democratic presidential forum, and the three candidates vying for their party’s nomination managed, once again, to discuss access to healthcare, women’s rights, and gender equality without once uttering the word “abortion.”

This isn’t just about Florida’s batshit anti-abortion proposal, and it isn’t just about the CNN forum. Search for the word abortion in the transcripts of any of the last four Democratic presidential debates, and this is what you’ll find:

But do you know who is talking about abortion at the debates? Ted Cruz, who opposes abortion in all circumstances; Marco Rubio, who opposes abortion in all circumstances; and Ben Carson, who—you guessed it—opposes abortion in all circumstances.

Republicans calling for policies that would criminalize reproductive healthcare can’t be the only ones giving abortion primetime attention. Democrats need to start talking.

Talking about abortion during a presidential debate is bigger than questions about policy. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, as well as Martin O’Malley, have strong records on reproductive health. Clinton, who was recently endorsed by Planned Parenthood and NARAL, has made the repeal of the Hyde Amendment a stump issue. When asked about it at Fusion’s Brown and Black Forum, Clinton called the ban on federal funding for abortion “hard to justify” and said “reproductive rights are a fundamental human right.”  (This is a long way away from Clinton’s approach during her 2008 candidacy, when she said, “I think abortion should remain legal, but it needs to be safe and rare.”)

Sanders, whose record on Hyde and reproductive health is consistent with Clinton’s, has responded to criticism of his comment calling Planned Parenthood part of “the establishment” by getting explicit about repealing the ban on federal abortion funding and a push to increase support for reproductive health providers like Planned Parenthood.

So the policies are there, but the language isn’t.

This pattern of talking around abortion—when reproductive health has been mentioned in the Democratic debates at all, it has been framed as “a woman’s right to choose”—is one of the reasons the issue remains so politically marginalized. Talking about abortion as basic healthcare reduces stigma and exposes falsehoods about abortion—that it’s a risky procedure, that it causes depression or infertility—for the lies that they are.

It also situates the issue in the lives of regular people: college students finishing their degrees, parents who are content with the size of their families, people whose condoms broke, women who missed a pill, young couples struggling to pay rent and waiting to start their families, expectant parents who received a heartbreaking diagnosis of a fetal anomaly.

Abortion is a reproductive health issue. It’s also an economic justice issue. It’s also an issue about equitable access to healthcare. It is, in other words, every bit the kind of issue the Democratic presidential contenders should be talking about. If the networks won’t ask about abortion, it’s time for the candidates themselves to start connecting these dots.

And particularly as the candidates use the debates to dig in on economic inequality, their silence on abortion erases its place as an economic issue. None of the candidates have mentioned access to abortion in debate discussions about universal healthcare, access to education, or economic equality despite the fact that studies indicate that a woman’s ability to control her own fertility and plan pregnancies correlates to increased educational and professional opportunities as well as higher lifetime earnings.

During the last debate, as Sanders and Clinton went back and forth about access to healthcare under a single-payer system and the Affordable Care Act, neither mentioned that one in four low-income women are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term because they can’t afford one without insurance. And in all that talk of access, neither mentioned that Texans are now traveling upwards of 200 miles to exercise what should be their constitutionally-protected right.

Addressing the rollback of abortion rights in this country—as well as the human toll of those restrictions—requires more than lip service about Planned Parenthood or vague references to the “right to choose.” Republicans have no problem saying the word “abortion” during primetime debates. Democrats should try being that bold.

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