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The Presidential Debates Should Address Abortion

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Americans deserve to hear President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden explain their differences when it comes to abortion. The first debate failed them.

On September 29, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace moderated the first 2020 presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. During the debate, Wallace suggested that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide, would be a topic for discussion later in the evening. It wasn’t. But it should be – and future debates should address abortion with questions from “Do you support any restrictions?” to “When do you say life begins?”

Towards the start of the debate, Biden brought up Roe v. Wade.

“The point is that the president also is opposed to Roe v. Wade,” he began. “That's on the ballot as well, in the court. In the court. And so that's also at stake, right now.”

The president disagreed.

“You don’t know that’s on the ballot,” he responded. Referring to Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, he continued, “I don’t think so. There's nothing happening there. And you don’t know her view on Roe v. Wade.”

That’s when Wallace promised the topic would come up again later.

“We got a lot to unpack here, gentlemen,” he interrupted. “On healthcare, and then we'll come back to Roe v. Wade.” 

But they never did.

The debates should address abortion. In relation to the Supreme Court, one of the six issues the first debate covered, the topic of abortion and Roe v. Wade couldn’t be more timely. The New Yorker is already covering “The First Abortion Case Before a Post-Ginsburg Supreme Court” while NPR is publishing “A Look At Amy Coney Barrett's Record On Abortion Rights.” Both pro-lifers and abortion activists – who tweeted “#AskAboutAbortion” throughout the evening – want to hear about it. That might be because, as polls find, one in four Americans consider abortion an important voting factor. 

According to CBS’ Kate Smith, a self-described reporter who covers “abortion access,” only “one question about abortion was asked during the 3 Presidential debates” in 2016.

This year, there should be more.

For Biden, a moderator might begin by asking, “Earlier this year, you wrote that ‘We need judges who will respect Roe v. Wade as the law.’ If president, will you stand by that statement when considering potential Supreme Court nominees?”

And, for President Trump, a similar question might go: “You said in 2016 that ‘I am putting pro-life justices on the court.’ Do you still stand by that?”

But for both President Trump and Biden, a moderator might get to the heart of the abortion debate – and the differences between Trump and Biden – by asking, “When do you say life begins? Why? How do you identify on the issue right now – pro-life, pro-choice? Why?”

For Biden, the moderator might add, “Do you support restrictions on abortion at any point during pregnancy?” And, because the Democratic nominee regularly appeals to Catholic voters, he might address the conflict between his faith, which condemns abortion as a grave evil, and his political position on abortion.

Both the president and Democratic nominee might also discuss their changed positions.

Beginning in 1976, Biden voted repeatedly against abortion. Among other things, he voted multiple times in favor of the Hyde Amendment, which generally bans federal funding from going towards abortion. He voted repeatedly for partial-birth abortion bans and even once supported a constitutional amendment allowing states to overturn Roe v. Wade.

His position changed as he prepared for the 2020 election and represented the Democratic Party platform that calls for “safe and legal abortion.” His switch on abortion became most obvious when he condemned the Hyde Amendment last year – the day after he reaffirmed his support for it.

Likewise, President Trump has changed from saying “I am very pro-choice” in 1999 to identifying as pro-life because, as he explained in 2011, he was touched by the story of a friend’s unwanted pregnancy.

Americans themselves have differences when it comes to abortion – even though the nuances aren’t always reported.

Abortion activists relish in pointing to polls finding that a majority of Americans want abortion legal – without also acknowledging that a majority of Americans want restrictions on abortion. Media highlight that a majority of Americans don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned but often overlook polls finding that a majority of Americans also oppose tax dollars from going toward abortion.

Admittedly, the differences between President Trump and Biden don’t always appear as nuanced.

President Trump’s campaign website reads that he “recognizes the precious gift of life and protects the sanctity of life at all stages.” Biden’s says of abortion: “health care is a right that should not be dependent on one’s zip code or income.”

Americans deserve to hear them say why.

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