Even in a presidential campaign that has become so intensely focused on gender, there was something surreal about watching Hillary Clinton’s response to a question about abortion in Wednesday night’s debate.
Here was the first woman nominated by a major party for the United States presidency, standing on the debate stage in “suffragette white,” and talking in no uncertain terms about her strong commitment to protecting a woman’s right to “make the most intimate, most difficult in many cases, decisions about her health care that one can imagine.”
Democrats are expected to support abortion rights, of course, but that support is often couched with carefully hedged language. This is an understandable impulse, given how divisive the issue of abortion remains.
“I would never have an abortion,” said Geraldine Ferraro, a Democrat and the first female vice presidential candidate for a major party, in a 1984 debate, “but I was not quite sure if I were ever to become pregnant as result of a rape if I would be that self-righteous.” Ferraro and others have often talked about being pro-choice as a matter of separation between church and state. (“I will accept the teaching of the church, but I cannot impose my religious views on someone else,” she said in that same debate. “I truly take an oath as a public official to represent all the people in my district, not only the Catholics.”)
In 1992, Al Gore described his ticket’s pro-choice stance with a caveat: “Bill Clinton and I support the right of a woman to choose,” Gore said. “That doesn't mean we're pro-abortion; in fact, we believe there are way too many abortions in this country.”
More recently, President Obama has echoed the Clinton-Gore approach in his own comments on Roe v. Wade, emphasizing his support for a woman’s right to choose while also focusing on the need to reduce “unintended pregnancies” and minimize “the need for abortion.”
Implicit in many of these statements is the idea that abortion is not really the right choice—but that women should be allowed to make it anyway.
Last night, on the national stage, Clinton rejected this implication. She did not hedge her support for Roe v. Wade. And she did not promote the idea that abortions should, or even can, be avoided. (To be clear, though, she has supported late-pregnancy restrictions on abortions with exceptions for the health of the mother and fetus.)
The message was loud and clear: A woman’s right to choose is a woman’s right to choose. Period.
“I will defend Roe v. Wade,” she said, “and I will defend women's rights to make their own healthcare decisions.”
“I’ll confess I felt a small thrill,” Emily Bazelon, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine wrote in a blog post. “More than at any big moment since the convention, Mrs. Clinton owned her feminism. She sounded like the first woman running for president, defending other women—our autonomy and our control of our own bodies.”
Donald Trump, on the other hand, characterized Clinton’s position as “not acceptable” to him: “I think it's terrible if you go with what Hillary is saying,” he said, when asked for his stance on late-term abortions. “In the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.” (Very few abortions are performed after the 20-week mark of a woman’s pregnancy, let alone at the end of a 40-week pregnancy—just 1 percent of all abortions take place past 21 weeks, according to The Washington Post. Many of the few women who get late-term abortions do so because their fetus cannot survive outside the womb, or because their own lives are at risk.)
Trump’s graphic language seemed like an obvious dog-whistle to the pro-life movement, which favors using vivid and often inaccurate descriptions of what happens to fetuses to make its argument against abortions. Clinton, blasting Trump’s “scare rhetoric,” refocused the conversation on women.
“You should meet with some of the women that I've met with—women I've known over the course of my life,” she said. “This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. And I do not believe the government should be making it.”
“I’ve been to countries where governments either forced women to have abortions like they used to do in China or forced women to bear children like they used to do in Romania,” she added. “And I can tell you the government has no business in the decisions that women make with their families in accordance with their faith, [and] with medical advice and I will stand up for that right.”
Clinton’s message, unequivocally, is that women aren’t just baby-growers. Women are humans. And that, as Clinton likes to say, women’s rights are human rights. That’s one of her go-to lines on the campaign trail, and there’s a reason it has stuck. Never in U.S. history has a presidential nominee been so convincing about her belief that it’s true.