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Kamala Harris brought up the most-ignored policy issue in the Democratic debates so far

Reproductive rights finally got a moment.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks onstage during the fourth Democratic primary debate.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks onstage during the fourth Democratic primary debate.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

In advance of the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night, reproductive rights and justice advocates around the country made a plea: “ask about abortion.”

They were responding to the fact that in the previous debate in September, candidates got no questions about abortion rights, and they didn’t bring up the issue.

But this time, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) didn’t wait to be asked. In the midst of yet another discussion of whether Medicare-for-all would raise taxes on the middle class, Harris changed the subject.

“This is the sixth debate we have had in this presidential cycle,” she said, counting the two-night events in June and July. But amid “all of these discussions about health care,” the senator went on, there’s been barely a word “on women’s access to health care.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden during the Democratic presidential debate.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden during the Democratic presidential debate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

“It’s outrageous,” Harris continued. “There are states that have passed laws that will virtually prevent women from having access to reproductive health care. It’s not an exaggeration to say women will die because these Republican legislatures in these various states, who are out of touch with America, are telling women what to do with their bodies.”

Harris could have been talking about the near-total abortion bans that have passed in Ohio, where the debate was held, as well as Alabama, Georgia, and elsewhere in the past year. Or she could have been talking about more subtle restrictions on abortion clinics that, if upheld by the Supreme Court, could have the same effect. Whatever the case, Harris was the first person on Tuesday night to bring up a crucial aspect of the health care debate that’s been largely ignored on the debate stage: Americans’ access to reproductive health care, including abortion.

Abortion has been ignored at previous debates. Harris put a stop to that.

Back in 2016, reproductive justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman started the hashtag #AskAboutAbortion because the issue wasn’t getting enough attention in debates at the time.

Three years and one presidential election cycle later, the issue still isn’t getting much airtime on the stage. Reproductive rights did get a substantive discussion in a debate in June, when Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Amy Klobuchar sparred over who had done more to expand access. But at subsequent debates, the issue got less and less attention, and in the third debate in September, reproductive rights weren’t mentioned at all. After the debate, Harris voiced her displeasure, tweeting that the debate “was three hours long and not one question about abortion or reproductive rights.”

In the runup to the fourth debate on Tuesday, activists used the #AskAboutAbortion hashtag again to press moderators on the issue. Meanwhile, Katie McDonough at Jezebel noted that “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.”

Harris may have taken such messages to heart. As the senator’s comment implied, reproductive health care is inextricable from the health care debate. About 1 in 4 women will get an abortion by the age of 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute. When people seek an abortion but can’t get one — something advocates say will happen more and more if state restrictions are allowed to go into effect — they face elevated risks of health problems and are more likely to stay in abusive relationships. And abortion rights are part of a larger spectrum of reproductive justice issues, including access to contraceptive, fertility, and prenatal care — all of which have received short shrift at the debates as well.

Many Democratic candidates have robust policy plans around reproductive health — Harris, for example, wants to use a system modeled on the Voting Rights Act to limit state-level abortion restrictions. But you wouldn’t know that based on the debates so far.

After Harris’s comments Tuesday night, Sen. Cory Booker followed up by saying that “women should not be the only ones taking up this cause” and that “people deserve to control their own bodies.”

And the moderators did eventually ask a question about how the candidates would stop states from restricting reproductive rights. Again, Booker was a standout, noting that such restrictions have the biggest impact on people in poverty.

But Harris was first out of the gate Tuesday on an issue that’s been largely ignored in recent debates, despite how important it is to many voters. She wasn’t asked about abortion rights, but she made clear that she has an answer.