Democrats Avoided the Toughest Debate Questions on Abortion

In part one of the Democratic Party’s first primary debates, the candidates did not go deep on substance.

The 2020 Democrats discussed abortion in broad strokes at the first debate in Miami. (Joe Raedle, Jim Watson / Getty)

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates see abortion as a winning issue in the next election. That was clear from the first night of the party’s primary debates, where the politicians onstage vied to show how emphatically they support abortion rights. The candidates focused on fear: of the state-level abortion bans recently passed in places such as Alabama, Missouri, and Georgia; of the threat to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. Multiple candidates affirmed their support for expansive abortion rights, citing widespread support among Americans.

The candidates also conveniently avoided the most controversial and contested aspects of abortion policy, including limits on the procedure at any point in a pregnancy. Whether this dodge was intentional or the natural outcome of a quick-paced debate, it stood in contrast to one of the most memorable moments of the 2016 presidential debates, when Hillary Clinton endorsed abortion through the end of the third trimester of a pregnancy. So far this cycle, Democrats have been running to embrace the abortion-rights positions that poll well with voters, and steering clear of tougher questions. In reality, however, these nitpicky questions about abortion limits matter: These are the policy areas where most abortion fights actually happen at the federal level.

The abortion conversation began with former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who approached the subject unprompted by the moderators. In answering a question about his health-care plan, O’Rourke said that “health care also has to mean that every woman can make her own decisions about her own body, and has access to the care that makes that possible.” Washington Governor Jay Inslee later picked up that theme, eager to make his pro-abortion-rights record clear. “I am the only candidate here who has passed a law protecting a woman’s right of reproductive rights in health insurance,” he said, referring to legislation he signed in 2018. “I respect everyone’s goals and plans here, but we have one candidate who advanced the ball. We have to have access for everyone.”

This claim did not sit well with Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. “I want to say there are three women up here who fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she said. The comment elicited loud applause, and was an inadvertent reminder of how male the first-night debate stage was: Klobuchar, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, stood out in the long line of male presidential candidates in their dark suits. But Klobuchar’s line was also a throwaway: Beyond implying her abortion-rights bona fides, she didn’t offer any details about her position.

The most illuminating answer came a few minutes later, from Warren. The moderator asked her directly, “Would you put limits on abortion?” The senator gave what has become a standard answer on the 2020 campaign trail: She wants to ensure access to birth control and abortion for all women, and she wants to create federal protections for the abortion rights laid out by the Supreme Court. She specifically nodded to public opinion in her answer. “We now have an America where most people support Roe v. Wade,” she said. “We need to make that the federal law.” Conveniently, she did not answer the question about placing limits on abortion.

The exchange, and Warren’s dodge, were reminders of how differently Clinton answered a similar question during the third presidential debate in 2016. Clinton attempted to humanize abortion late in a pregnancy. “I have met with women who, toward the end of their pregnancy, get the worst news one could get: that their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy,” she said. In the past year, Democratic legislators in states such as New York have focused on these kinds of cases, lifting restrictions on abortion in the second and third trimesters of a pregnancy. But these kinds of measures are also highly controversial: Gallup polling over the past four decades has shown significant divisions in public opinion over abortions that take place late in a pregnancy.

On the 2020 campaign trail, Warren and other candidates who have focused on abortion, such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have avoided these kinds of controversial questions about abortion, just as Warren did during the debate. Most 2020 Democrats have focused on the big-picture issues that they see as clear winners among their base, such as supporting the rights outlined in Roe v. Wade.

Other candidates’ responses showed how far the Democratic debate on abortion has moved: Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, endorsed a government-funded health-care plan that would cover abortions for everyone, including transgender individuals. As it stands, federal money cannot be used to pay for most abortions, the standard set out in the long-standing Hyde Amendment, which has become a flash point among the field.

Democrats are clearly willing to promote their party’s support for abortion rights; none of the nearly two dozen candidates has tried to use moderation on abortion to his or her advantage. And yet even with Democrats pushing ahead on this issue, there are limits to how far they’ll go.