There were no questions about abortion or reproductive health at the third Democratic debate on Thursday night, which is usually what happens at presidential debates. The absence of any real discussion about abortion is so predictable at this point that there’s a hashtag (“#AskAboutAbortion”) and a familiar cycle of next-day takes that most writers on the beat could probably turn around in their sleep. The campaigns, too, have started to work these omissions into their messaging, with Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke both sharing nearly identical post-debate disappointment about it:
This is all fine I guess, but the candidates don’t actually need to be asked a question about abortion in order to talk about abortion. They can just talk about it. It’s a really common medical procedure.
They could have talked about abortion in the first major exchange of the debate, when George Stephanopoulos brought out the inevitable question how to pay for public programs like Medicare-for-All.
Elizabeth Warren gave a moving answer about the painful costs of a for-profit healthcare system—“Families pay every time an insurance company says, sorry, you can’t see that specialist. Every time an insurance company says, sorry, that doctor is out of network, sorry, we are not covering that prescription,” she said—that could have just as easily included a reference to abortion restrictions currently in place in some state-regulated private insurance plans.
Sanders could have mentioned how people struggle to access abortion when he talked about how, under Medicare-for-All, “nobody in America will pay more than $200 a year for prescription drugs” or how “we need a health care system that guarantees health care to all people.”
Harris could have brought up the gag rule in her response about how the current administration is whittling down patient protections, and O’Rourke could have easily talked about abortion while discussing the lack of access to care people in Texas are living through right now.
This would have taken all of seven seconds in each case, at most. But candidates and elected officials don’t do this kind of thing because they tend to treat abortion as a standalone issue rather than something that touches different aspects of people’s lives. Looking back at the questions that have been asked about abortion at debates, you can see that they tend to be singularly focused on whether or not the procedure should be covered by insurance or what if any kinds of restrictions should be placed on it.
But abortion isn’t just a matter of the circumstances under which you access it. It’s about basic autonomy and the ability to determine what your life should look like—like how some people never want to have kids at all, or the parents who know that raising another kid is either too expensive or just not part of the plan. People who very much want to be pregnant have abortions, either because the pregnancy is nonviable or it’s something that happens if you have a miscarriage but there’s still tissue left in the uterus. Abortion is a basic medical reality but also a necessary social good at a time when, for so many people who can become pregnant, raising a child without any necessary supports in place—affordable childcare, stable housing, food assistance if you need it—is just a nonstarter.
Most of the candidates standing on the stage Thursday night, if not all of them, probably have a personal experience with abortion that isn’t just about whether or not Planned Parenthood should receive Medicaid reimbursements, so why not talk about it that way? You don’t even need a question to do it.