Read: 2020 Democrats are going all in on abortion rights
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.