Just Don’t Call It Abortion

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have gone further in embracing abortion rights than ever before. But they still hide behind euphemism.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Twelve candidates were onstage last night, and of the eight who were asked a direct question about abortion, six avoided using the word, preferring euphemisms such as “reproductive rights” or “a woman’s right to choose.”

The question went down the line: As president, how would you, Kamala Harris, stop recent state laws that have banned abortion after six or eight weeks of pregnancy? How would you do it, Amy Klobuchar? Cory Booker?

Their answers were largely the same: They will pass laws that protect the right to abortion, above and beyond the principles the Supreme Court laid out in Roe v. Wade. They will intervene in southern states. They will push back against President Donald Trump’s anti-abortion policies. They will, in other words, act as steadfast defenders of abortion rights. They just can’t, or won’t, use the word abortion.

Only two people, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, said the word outright. While these Democrats have been willing to go further in embracing abortion rights than virtually any past presidential candidates, they also went to extreme lengths to talk around the actual issue: when and under what circumstances a woman should be allowed to terminate her pregnancy in the United States. Perhaps these progressive candidates are aware of how morally mixed Americans are on abortion, especially in crucial swing states such as Ohio that they’ll be looking to win in 2020.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is the best evidence of how far to the left Democrats have moved on the abortion issue. Throughout his career in the Senate, which began shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe, Biden stuck to a moderate’s line: While he understood that abortion may need to be legal, he felt personally uncomfortable with it, he said. He consistently voted for the Hyde Amendment, which prevents the federal government from paying for most abortions through its public programs.

After facing significant criticism on the campaign trail this year, however, Biden reversed his position, saying he would work to repeal the Hyde Amendment as president. On the debate stage last night, he reaffirmed his new stance, calling for the legislative codification of the principles laid out in Roe. “The public is already there,” he said. “Things have changed.”

Biden also vowed to campaign against legislators in states such as Ohio and Alabama, which have passed restrictive abortion laws. “Reproductive rights are a constitutional right, and, in fact, every woman should have that right,” he said. Notably missing from his impassioned answer, however, was the word abortion. Other candidates’ answers followed directly in this spirit, diverging little on matters of policy.

The big exception was Gabbard. “I agree with Hillary Clinton on one thing,” she said. “In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president and she said abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, I think she’s correct.” As a presidential candidate, of course, Hillary Clinton effectively reversed this position, all but embracing abortion up until the end of pregnancy.

Last night, Gabbard defied the rest of the Democratic field, arguing that there should be restrictions in place.

“I support codifying Roe v. Wade while making sure that during the third trimester, abortion is not an option unless the life or severe health consequences of the woman are at risk,” she said.

Leana Wen, the recently ousted president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, cheered Gabbard’s answer. It was “courageous” of Gabbard “to bring up nuances,” Wen tweeted. “Most Americans hold complex truths: they can both personally oppose abortion & support others’ right to choose; they can both feel uncomfortable about abortion & not want women to die from back-alley procedures.”

Gabbard’s views line up with the American public’s much more closely than the rest of the Democratic candidates’ do. Two-thirds of Americans have consistently told Gallup that they believe third-trimester abortions should generally be illegal, outside of dangerous medical situations. Democratic voters are far more likely than Republican voters to say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but even those voters are split on whether there should be some legal limits on the procedure, according to the Pew Research Center.

Still, as the Trump administration has made anti-abortion policy one of its hallmarks, Democrats have hardened their positions, becoming much more likely than they were just 10 years ago to favor abortion’s legality, according to Pew.

For many voters heading into this election cycle, stories such as the one Warren told resonate. “I lived in an America where abortion was illegal, and rich women still got abortions because they could travel,” she said. “The people who are denied access to abortion are the poor, are the young, are 14-year-olds who were molested by a family member, and we now have support across this country.” Unlike the other candidates, Warren was willing to talk about her support for abortion directly.

Perhaps even Democrats, who have effectively formed a lockstep on this issue, see value in softening their language, speaking in terms of rights and women’s bodily autonomy instead of directly naming a morally controversial procedure. After all, there’s nothing better to remind candidates of the general election ahead than being onstage in Ohio, a state split down the center on the abortion issue.